Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Negligence – Can You Prove Liability?

Overview

Much of tort law centers around the concept of negligence.  The negligence system is designed to provide compensation to those who suffer personal injury or property damage.  It’s also a fault-based system in most instances.   When negligence is based on fault, the injured party (plaintiff) must be able to prove that their injury was the defendant’s fault.  Without that proof, the defendant will not be liable.  In addition, the plaintiff must prove each element of their negligent tort case by a preponderance of the evidence

Establishing fault and, as a result, liability – that’s the focus of today’s post. 

Liability Conditions

For a person to be deemed legally negligent, certain conditions must exist. These conditions can be thought of as links in a chain. Each condition must be present before a finding of negligence can be obtained. 

Legal duty.  The first condition is that of a legal duty giving rise to a standard of care.  To be liable for a negligent tort, the defendant's conduct must have fallen below that of a “reasonable and prudent person” under the circumstances.  A reasonable and prudent person is what a jury has in mind when they measure an individual's conduct in retrospect - after the fact, when the case is in court. The conduct of a particular tortfeasor (the one causing the tort) who is not held out as a professional is compared with the mythical standard of conduct of the reasonable and prudent person in terms of judgment, knowledge, perception, experience, skill, physical, mental and emotional characteristics as well as age and sanity. For those held out as having the knowledge, skill, experience or education of a professional, the standard of care reflects those factors.

Breach.   If a legal duty exists, it is necessary to determine whether the defendant's conduct fell short of the conduct of a “reasonable and prudent person (or professional) under the circumstances.”  This is called a breach, and is the second element of a negligent tort case.

Causation.  Once a legal duty and breach of that duty are shown to exist, a causal connection (the third element) must be established between the defendant's act and (the fourth element) the plaintiff's injuries (whether to person or property).  In other words, the resulting harm to the plaintiff must have been a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant's conduct at the time the conduct occurred. Reasonable foreseeability is the essence of causality (also known as proximate cause).

Damages.  If the plaintiff is able to establish that the defendant breached a duty that was owed to the plaintiff, the plaintiff must also prove that the breach of the duty caused damages.  The damages must be more than trivial and must be proved.

Recent Case

A recent case involving a dairy operation from the state of Washington illustrates the importance of being able to prove damages and that those damages were causally related to the defendant’s conduct.  In White River Feed Co. v. Kruse Family, LP, No. 76562-1-I, 2018 Wash. App. LEXIS 1031(Wash. Ct. App. Apr. 30, 2018), the plaintiff claimed that the defendant supplied contaminated feed that caused illness in the plaintiff’s milking cows. During April of 2013 the plaintiff fed the cows the plaintiff’s own “green-chop” as well as the defendant’s custom grain feed blend. The dry cows (i.e., cows that were not milking) and the bulls were fed only “green-chop.” The “green-chop” had been incorporated into the rations on April 17.  The third grain delivery had been fed as soon as it had been delivered on the 18th. On April 19, the milking cows showed a decreased appetite and developed diarrhea. By April 22, the plaintiff’s veterinarian, had been called to examine and treat the milking cows.

The veterinarian initially diagnosed the cows with an ionophore toxicity.  Further investigations, however, revealed that the cows had salmonella poisoning. Grain from the calf barn, which the plaintiff stated came from the April 18 feed delivery, tested negative for salmonella. The “green-chop” was never tested as it had all been fed to the herd. The plaintiff’s veterinarian concluded with an eighty percent probability that the milking cows had become ill from the defendant’s grain. Most of the veterinarian’s opinion was based upon the fact that the dry cows and bulls had not become ill because they had not been fed any grain. The plaintiff’s veterinarian did acknowledge, however, that the calves were fed the grain and did not become ill. However, he hypothesized that the milk in their diet kept them from eating the grain or the industry practice of feeding calves the “crumbs” from the cows limited the salmonella.

The illness caused the plaintiff loss of twenty to twenty-five head which either died or were culled and another thirty head were sold for beef due to substantial weight loss   In addition to claiming damages for the loss of cows, the plaintiff reported a decrease in milk production and loss of fetuses in the infected cows. The plaintiff sued for damages from the salmonella illness, and the defendant countered with claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment for the outstanding accounts. The defendant also requested a jury trial and moved for summary judgment based on their own veterinarian’s expert opinion. The defendant’s veterinarian stated that the data was insufficient to pinpoint salmonella from the grain as the cause of the illness. Due to the negative test results, the fact the calves or any other farms experienced the same illness, and low moisture content of the grain, the defendant’s expert believed that no expert could have arrived at the diagnosis that the plaintiff’s veterinarian did.

The trial court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion. The plaintiff moved for reconsideration, and submitted a declaration of an opinion from another veterinarian.  This declaration stated that the negative results from the test may not be representative of the entire batch of feed. The trial court denied the motion to reconsider,  The appellate court affirmed.  The appellate court did not give much weight to the hypothetical projections of the initial veterinarian’s diagnosis. Also, the appellate court questioned why the veterinarian ignored the negative test results for salmonella or did not test for non-feed sources of salmonella that the other expert stated could be a cause.  In addition, the court found that the expert opinion was abstract evidence rather than an issue of fact that could overcome the motion for summary judgment. 

Conclusion

Proving damages is an essential element of a negligent tort case.  Even though the defendant may have owed a duty to the plaintiff, breach that duty and the breach caused the plaintiff’s damages, if those damages can’t be proven or can’t be shown to be causally related to the defendant’s conduct, the plaintiff will not prevail on the claim.  In the farm and ranch setting there can be many intervening factors that may cut-off the defendant’s liability.  Make sure to think through each element before bringing suit.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/agriculturallaw/2018/06/negligence-can-you-prove-liability.html

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