When it comes to personal injury cases, there is often a high level of ambiguity. Accidents don’t occur in a void, so there are frequently additional factors that need to be considered. Another incident could interrupt the chain of events between one person’s negligence and another’s injury, potentially removing their liability.
Superseding cause is when an independent event occurred during an accident that keeps the negligent party (the defendant) safe from liability.
Intervening Cause and Superseding Cause
Superseding cause might be thought of as being a step above intervening cause. An intervening cause is any event that occurs after the defendant’s actions and caused harm to the plaintiff. This alone is not enough to absolve the defendant of all liability, but it may do so under certain circumstances.
If the intervening cause and its results could not have been foreseen, it is considered to be a superseding cause. In this case, the defendant is not held liable for the accident. If, however, either the intervening cause or its results could have been anticipated, then the defendant can still be considered at fault for the accident.
Example of Superseding Cause
For example, suppose Margaret moves into a top-floor apartment. A few months after moving in, the bathroom ceiling collapses on her, showering her with plaster, wood, snow, and ice. She sues the landlord Jim for her injuries, claiming poor maintenance of the property.
If it was only Jim’s negligence that caused the accident, then he would likely be held liable for Margaret’s injuries. However, after some investigation, it’s found that the collapse was actually due to some kids who’d sneaked up onto the roof and piled all the snow buildup over Margaret’s bathroom. There just so happened to be a small crack that had developed a few years back, allowing water to seep in, but not enough to make a visible leak in Margaret’s bathroom.
After some time, the weight of the snow and ice combined with the water damage from the leak to cause Margaret’s bathroom ceiling to collapse. Since the unlikely act of piling snow on the roof couldn’t have been foreseen to cause an injury, it would likely be considered a superseding cause, and Jim would dodge liability.
Here’s another example. Suppose Allison is driving along a city road and is rear-ended by Harold, who is a tad drunk. Under most circumstances, Harold would obviously be held liable for any damages caused.
Now, suppose Harold only clipped Allison’s car, causing negligible injuries, but causing her to lose control. As she veers into the other lane, Robert, who is driving a truck going the opposite direction, smashes into her, causing severe injuries and vehicle damage.
Since the collision with Robert caused the highest degree of injury, Harold claims superseding cause in order to avoid injury. However, since his act of driving drunk and Allison’s loss of control would be reasonably expected to result in an injury, the collision with Robert would be considered an intervening cause, but not superseding.
Handling the Complexity
These types of scenarios typically involve a high level of ambiguity, so it’s important to have a lawyer on your side who is able to navigate the process intelligently. Hart David Carson LLP has the experience needed to help you recover what you’re owed, so contact us to review your case.