Proving Causation Takes More than Just Possibilities

Sometimes one plus one does not equal two. This was a lesson learned by the Living Epistle Church after a suit against the City of Shreveport. The church sued the city for damages to its sanctuary building, which was allegedly caused by a leaking sewer main. The trial judge heard testimony from the pastor and several experts and awarded $150,000 in damages to the church. However, the city appealed, arguing that the church had failed to prove that the sewer main leaked and was the cause of the damage to the sanctuary. The appellate court agreed with the city and reversed the decision and dismissed the claims.

In a civil suit like this one brought by the church, the plaintiff has the burden of proving the negligence of the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence. Most negligence cases require proving the following separate elements

  1. whether the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a specific standard
  2. whether the defendant’s conduct failed to conform to the appropriate standard
  3. whether the defendant’s substandard conduct was a cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries
  4. whether the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries
  5. whether the plaintiff was damaged

The questions above are answered at the trial court level. The court of appeals may not set aside a trial court’s finding of fact unless there is manifest error or unless it is clearly wrong when the record as a whole is reviewed. The appellate court must find that a reasonable basis for the trial court’s findings does not exist and the findings are clearly wrong in order to reverse the trial court decision.

In the appeal, both an indispensable fact (whether there was any leak in the sewer line at all) and the essential element of whether any such leak was the cause of the damage to the sanctuary (cause-in-fact) were questioned. The church argued that the sanctuary experienced liquid accumulation, that the city responded promptly each time to pump the basement, and that eventually the city capped off the line and rerouted it. While this suggests a possible linkage between the flooded basement and the sewer line, there was plenty of indication that this was not the most probable cause of the damage.

The record indicated that the sewer was capped off because it had clogged and cracked, not because it was leaking. Also, while the plaintiff’s expert opined that the sewer main could have caused the damage, he was provided with inaccurate information as to the location of the sewer main. Both the city’s experts and the assistant superintendent over water, sewer and maintenance said that there was no indication that the sewer was rerouted due to a leak and no reasonable possibility of the original sewer line causing the damage to the sanctuary.

The trial court indicated that it had made a credibility determination in favor of the church’s experts. However, in the end the appellate court had to discount the plaintiff’s expert testimony because of the misinformation provided by the plaintiff. To show causation requires a preponderance of the evidence. The church failed to convincingly show that there was even a leak in the sewer line; much less that it caused the damage to the sanctuary. The decision was reversed and the claims dismissed with prejudice.

Civil suit negligence claims can be an expensive undertaking, not only because of the court and attorney fees but also because they come in the wake of damages suffered by potential plaintiffs. A plausible story – for instance, the basement flooded and then the sewer was rerouted – is not enough. Contacting a qualified attorney that can analyze the situation and gather the evidence necessary to bring a successful negligence claim is an important step for potential plaintiffs.