In Deines v. Atlas Energy, 2021COA24, a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed a trial court ruling which dismissed the Plaintiff's claim at summary judgment based on intervening events breaking the chain of causation. The appellate panel concluded the question of proximate cause should have been decided by the jury, not the judge.
In Deines, the plaintiff, was diverted to another roadway when the defendant, an energy company, spilled 1000 gallons of hazardous liquid on the highway. The Plaintiff was rear-ended and injured about forty minutes later when he stopped in traffic. Deines argued that his injuries were caused by the negligence of the energy company that caused the oil spill. His attorneys explained that the energy company was negligent in causing the spill, and that it was foreseeable that the plaintiff might be rear-ended and injured in traffic that had to be diverted from the highway because of the spill.
The defendants moved for summary judgment on the rationale that the rear-end crash was an unexpected, intervening event that broke the chain of causation. In other words, the energy company explained, the driver who caused the rear-end crash was to blame for the injuries and not the energy company that spilled oil on the highway.
The trial court agreed with defendants. The judge explained that “the oil spill was not the proximate cause of Deines's injuries. As a matter of law, it was not reasonably foreseeable that [the at fault driver] would fail to pay attention and fail to notice that Deines had stopped in front of him more than a half-hour after the oil spill and nearly a third of a mile away.” The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment in favor of defendants.
In reviewing the decision, the appellate panel noted that “[i]ssues of negligence and proximate cause are matters generally to be resolved by the jury.” The appellate court further explained that only in the clearest of cases where the facts are undisputed and reasonable minds can draw but one inference from them should such issues be determined as a matter of law:
But generally, it is the juror's job to consider all the facts and circumstances, and to use their common sense to make the call regarding the foreseeability of an intervening act. We may take that job away from the jury only when we are firmly convinced that every rational juror would have to find that the intervening act was fully independent and unforeseeable – essentially, that the plaintiff's injury was “merely an improbably freak”, as it related to the original negligence.
The appellate court further explained:
The question is not, as the district court suggested, whether, in light of the facts and circumstances after the spill, including the conduct of other drivers, Campa-Borrego should have been able to stop before he hit Deines. The question for proximate cause purposes is whether defendants should have reasonably foreseen that if they caused an oil spill on a highway at night, an accident relatively close in time and place to the spill might result.
The court of appeals ruled that because a rational jury could have concluded that the oil spill was a proximate cause of the injury accident, it was improper for the trial court to take the question away from the jury and dismiss plaintiff's case at summary judgment.