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6.6: Hain v. Jamison (NY 2016)

Goals

  • Become more familiar with how US judges use legal English terms we studied
  • Practice reading US legal texts

Instructions

  • Read the excerpt of the case below. Some parts of the case have been omitted and I added brackets with numbers before the sentences.
  • Answer the questions

Hain v. Jamison (New York 2016)

STEIN, J.:

[1] The sole issue before us on this appeal is whether defendant Drumm Family Farm, Inc., established its entitlement to summary judgment by demonstrating the absence of a material question of fact regarding whether its alleged negligence was a proximate cause of decedent’s death. [2] We conclude that the Farm failed to meet its burden as the movant, and that proximate cause is, therefore, a question for the factfinder.

I.

[3] Decedent, the wife of plaintiff, was struck and killed by a vehicle driven by one of the Jamison defendants as decedent was walking in the northbound lane of a rural road late one evening. [4] Plaintiff, individually and on behalf of decedent’s estate, subsequently commenced this negligence action against the Jamison defendants and Drumm Family Farm, Inc. [5] Plaintiff alleged that, at the time of the collision, decedent was assisting a calf that was loose in the roadway. [6] The calf, owned by the Farm, had escaped its nearby enclosure. [7] The complaint alleged that the driver who struck decedent was negligent in operating her vehicle, and that the Farm was negligent for failing to maintain its fence and restrain or retrieve the calf, thereby allowing it to wander into the roadway. [8] The Farm and the Jamison defendants answered the complaint, and asserted cross claims for contribution and indemnification.

[9] Thereafter, the Farm moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and all cross claims asserted against it, arguing that its alleged negligence in allowing the calf to escape or failing to retrieve it did not constitute a proximate cause of decedent’s death. [10] Rather, the Farm argued, decedent’s intervening and unforeseeable act of exiting her vehicle and entering the roadway in an attempt to assist the calf, and the other driver’s negligence in operating her vehicle, were the only proximate causes of decedent’s death.

[11] In support of its motion, the Farm proffered the driver’s deposition testimony explaining the circumstances of the collision. [12] According to the driver, she was traveling north on the road in question, shortly after 10:00 p.m., when she slowed her vehicle to maneuver a curve in the road. [13] As she came around the bend, she saw “very bright” headlights from a vehicle pulled over on the left, or southbound, side of the road. [14] As the driver’s vision adjusted and she passed the stopped vehicle, she saw decedent in the road milliseconds before hitting her and what she thought, at the time, was a dog — but which she later learned was a calf.

[….omitted….]

[15] Plaintiff and the Jamison defendants opposed the Farm’s motion, arguing that a question of fact existed regarding whether decedent’s death was a foreseeable consequence of the Farm’s negligence. [16] Proof offered in opposition to the Farm’s motion, including testimony from Drumm’s deposition and the affidavit of a neighboring property owner, indicated that the fence surrounding the Farm was in poor condition and that, on prior occasions, cows had escaped and wandered near and into the roadway, although Drumm asserted that the fence was intact at the time of the accident.

[…omitted…]

II.

[17] It is well settled that “[e]vidence of negligence is not enough by itself to establish liability,” for it also must be proven that the negligence was a proximate, or legal, cause of the event that produced the harm sustained by the plaintiff (Sheehan v City of New York, 40 NY2d 496, 501 [1976]). [18] We have previously observed that “[t]he concept of proximate cause . . . has proven to be an elusive one, incapable of being precisely defined to cover all situations” (Derdiarian v Felix Contr. Corp., 51 NY2d 308, 314 [1980]). [19] This is because the determination of proximate cause involves, among other things, policy-laden considerations; that is, the chain of causation must have an endpoint in order “to place manageable limits upon the liability that flows from negligent conduct”. Id. 

[20] The overarching principle governing determinations of proximate cause is that a “defendant’s negligence qualifies as a proximate cause where it is ‘a substantial cause of the events which produced the injury'” (Mazella v Beals, 27 NY3d 694, 706 [2016], quoting Derdiarian, 51 NY2d at 315). [21] Typically, the question of whether a particular act of negligence is a substantial cause of the plaintiff’s injuries is one to be made by the factfinder, as such a determination turns upon questions of foreseeability and “‘what is foreseeable and what is normal may be the subject of varying inferences'” (Kriz v Schum, 75 NY2d 25, 34 [1989], quoting Derdiarian, 51 NY2d at 315; see Voss v Netherlands Ins. Co., 22 NY3d 728, 737 [2014]).

[22] When a question of proximate cause involves an intervening act, “‘liability turns upon whether the intervening act is a normal or foreseeable consequence of the situation created by the defendant’s negligence'” (Mazella, 27 NY3d at 706, quoting Derdiarian, 51 NY2d at 315 [emphasis added]). [23] Thus, “[w]here the acts of a third person intervene between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury, the causal connection is not automatically severed” (Derdiarian, 51 NY2d at 315). [24] Rather, “[t]he mere fact that other persons share some responsibility for plaintiff’s harm does not absolve defendant from liability because ‘there may be more than one proximate cause of an injury'” (Mazella, 27 NY3d at 706, quoting Argentina v Emery World Wide Delivery Corp., 93 NY2d 554, 560 n 2 [1999]). [25] It is “[o]nly where ‘the intervening act is extraordinary under the circumstances, not foreseeable in the normal course of events, or independent of or far removed from the defendant’s conduct.” (Mazella, 27 NY3d at 706, quoting Derdiarian, 51 NY2d at 315; see Kush v City of Buffalo, 59 NY2d 26, 33 [1983]). [26] To state the inverse of this rule, a defendant is liable “[w]hen . . . the intervening act is a natural and foreseeable consequence of a circumstance created by defendant” (Kush, 59 NY2d at 33; Lynch v Bay Ridge Obstetrical and Gynecological Assoc., 72 NY2d 632, 636 [1988]).

[….omitted…]

[27] A factfinder could reasonably conclude that decedent’s actions in exiting her vehicle and entering the roadway were an entirely “‘normal or foreseeable consequence of the situation created by the defendant’s negligence'” (Mazella, 27 NY3d at 706, quoting Derdiarian, 51 NY2d at 315). [28] In Hastings v Sauve, we held that a property owner may be liable under ordinary principles of tort law when he or she, through negligent acts or omissions, allows a farm animal — specifically, a domestic animal as defined in Agriculture and Markets Law § 108 (7) — to stray from the property on which the animal is kept (see 21 NY3d at 125-126). [29] In Hastings, the plaintiff sustained injuries when her vehicle struck a cow that had wandered onto a public road (see id. at 124). [30] Although we did not address the issue of proximate cause directly, an obvious assumption underlying our decision was the accepted premise that farm animals wandering unrestrained near roadways present a reasonably foreseeable danger to motorists due to their potential to interfere with traffic. [31] As particularly relevant here, a wandering farm animal may be large enough to obstruct a roadway and, regardless of size, may impede traffic to a significant degree. [32] Such an animal may cause substantial harm if struck by a vehicle or when a driver acts to avoid impact. [33] In addition, a factfinder may determine that a person, under the particular circumstances of a case, may reasonably consider it safe to approach the wandering animal. [34] Thus, a jury could reasonably conclude that it is foreseeable that a motorist who encounters such an animal on a rural roadway would attempt to remove the animal from the thoroughfare. [35] Such conduct cannot, as a matter of law, be considered so “extraordinary under the circumstances, not foreseeable in the normal course of events, or independent of or far removed from the defendant’s conduct,” that it breaks the chain of causation (Derdiarian, 51 NY2d at 315). [36] Thus, on this record, the Farm has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating the absence of material issues of fact, and proximate cause is a question for the factfinder.

[37] Accordingly, the order of the lower court should be reversed, and defendant Drumm Family Farm Inc.’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the Jamison defendants’ claims against it should be denied.

Questions

Please upload your answers as a word document. Submit your answers before the final exam.

  1. What type of tort was involved in this case?
  2. Summarize the facts of the case in 3 – 4 sentences. What happened before the lawsuit began? Why did plaintiff sue defendants?
  3. What was the basis to argue that the Farm was liable?
  4. Why did the Farm argue that it was not liable?
  5. Do you think the Farm was liable?
  6. What do you think the Court means by “chain of causation”?
  7. What is another word for “factfinder”? Hint: It starts with a “j”.