Causation- Moving Beyond the Blame Game in Ouachita

The story behind Davis v. Foremost Dairies is a tale of a woman who could be considered at least slightly accident prone. Three different doctors weighed in on the probable cause of her main injury, a bulge in the disc between two of the vertebrae in her neck. In addition to the car accident with one of the defendants, she suffered a fall down some stairs and an incident in which an eight-year-old child grabbed her neck. The issue at hand was whether or not the accident with the defendant was the proximate cause of her permanent pain.

Proximate cause is a legal concept that most students of law find confusing at first. Proving that a defendant was the proximate cause of a plaintiff’s injury is crucial to proving the overall claim. Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. is probably the most famous case laying out the legal definition of proximate cause. Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo, later Justice Cardozo, wrote this often cited opinion. His decision, strongly dissented to by Judge William Andrews, deviates somewhat from what could be called the common sense definition of causation.

For those not familiar with the Palsgraf case, here is a brief explanation. This case dealt with a woman injured by a falling scale on a train platform that was knocked over by vibrations in that platform cause by fireworks. These fireworks exploded when two guards pushed and pulled a man carrying a non-descript package onto a departing train. The issue at hand was whether or not the men, who were in the employ of the train company at the time of the incident, were liable for Ms. Palsgraf’s injuries. A traditional “but-for” analysis of this event would say that Ms. Palsgraf would not have been injured but for the acts of the railroad company’s employees. The New York Court of Appeals reversed the New York Supreme Court and denied relief to the plaintiff. The court determined that the behavior of the train company employees was too remote from the resulting harm. The men were not considered the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. How do courts determine the issue of causation in a modern context? The answer is very commonly expert medical testimony. Ms. Davis’ case used the opinions of several of these medical experts.

Ms. Davis alleged, with at least the partial backing of three medical professionals, that her car accident was the proximate cause of her injuries. This allegation, once proven beyond a preponderance of the evidence, would entitle her to compensation for her injuries. “Preponderance of the evidence” may sound like a lofty standard but actually it simply means that something is more likely than not the case. The trial judge in Ms. Davis’ case determined that it was more likely than not the case that Ms. Davis’ injuries were proximately caused by the accident with the individual defendant. Since this was considered a factual finding, the trial judge’s findings were given great deference on appeal.

The trial judge was called upon to weigh competing claims using far from conclusive evidence to determine the outcome of this case. The defense attempted to ruin Ms. Davis’ credibility, as well. There were some allegations that she was addicted to prescription drugs. At least one of the doctors involved in this case testified that she exhibited signs of “doctor shopping” and other drug-seeking behavior. Despite all of the murkiness involved, the trial court determined that Ms. Davis’ injuries were proximately caused by the accident with the defendant. Her award was reduced on appeal but not for lack of causation. The trial court’s decision was not found to constitute “manifest error,” which is required for overturning factual findings. The Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit affirmed the decision in respect to causation. The accident with the defendant was the proximate cause of her injuries. The individual defendant’s employer was found to be vicariously liable for her injuries.

If you have injuries that may have been caused by someone else, contact the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005. Do not attempt to navigate the troubled waters of proximate cause alone. Seek the help of a licensed attorney like those at the Berniard Law Firm.