It is not uncommon for a combination of negligent acts by multiple actors to precede an injury. As such, it is important to be able to establish a point where an intervening cause of injury may relieve an original actor of liability for their own negligence. The key to determining such a point lies in defining the proximate cause of the subject injury.
The concept of a “proximate cause” effectively limits an actor’s liability to injuries which are the “natural and probable consequence of the actor’s actions.” Poage v. Crane Co., 523 S.W.3d 496, 513 (Mo. App. E.D. 2017). That is to say, an actor is not held liable for injuries that are freakish or unexpected in relation to the negligent act. An intervening cause can sufficiently break the chain of events flowing from the original negligent act, such that the intervening cause becomes the direct and proximate cause of the injury. “The issue is whether the intervening act so supersedes the [actor’s] earlier conduct as to excuse its responsibility thereof.” Buck v. Union Elec. Co., 887 S.W.2d 430, 434 (Mo. App. E.D. 1994).
For the negligent acts of another to sufficiently supersede the earlier conduct and become the proximate cause of the injury, the intervening negligent acts must be unforeseeable and independent. Liability cannot be avoided if the intervening negligence is a “foreseeable and natural product of the original negligence.” Wilson v. Image Flooring, LLC, 400 S.W.3d 386, 398-99 (Mo. App. W.D. 2013).
In Rayman v. Abbott Ambulance, Inc., 546 S.W.3d 13 (Mo. App. 2018), the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District addressed the issues of proximate cause and intervening cause. The plaintiff, in that case, was involved in a motor vehicle accident that occurred when she proceeded through an intersection pursuant to a green traffic signal. She struck another vehicle that pulled into the intersection in front of her. The plaintiff claimed that an ambulance negligently approached the intersection, forcing the other vehicle to pull out in front of her to make way for the ambulance.
In support of her argument, the plaintiff cited a wrongful death case in which the plaintiff sued a police officer and police department after a vehicle being pursued by police at over 100 mph struck and killed the decedent. The Rayman court distinguished the two fact patterns by pointing to the way in which the successive actions were connected. The court stated that the actions of a vehicle being pursued by a police officer are closely related to the actions of the pursuing vehicle. The actions of the driver of a pursued vehicle are clearly linked to the actions of the pursuer and are a natural and probable consequence of the same. Contrastingly, the Rayman court noted, the drivers of both vehicles involved in the accident entered the intersection despite the presence of an emergency vehicle, in violation of State law. The court further stated that the ambulance operator had no reason to suspect that the operators of surrounding vehicles would act without regard to the law or their own safety. That is to say, the actions of the drivers who entered the intersection, despite the presence of an emergency vehicle, were not the natural and probable consequence of the ambulance approaching the intersection. As such, the negligent actions of those drivers constituted an intervening cause that became the direct and proximate cause of the injury.
When defending a claim in which there are subsequent negligent acts, it is important to evaluate the relationship between all negligent acts present in the chain of events leading to the injury. If it can be established that a subsequent negligent act is sufficiently unrelated to the prior act that it is not the natural and probable consequence of the prior act, liability can be wholly avoided. If not, the defense will rely on the doctrine of comparative fault.