Alternative Causes Doctrine The alternative causes doctrine applies where two elements are met: (1) the plaintiff can prove that (A) multiple defendants were negligent and (B) at least one of the defendants caused the plaintiff’s harm, and (2) the plaintiff cannot show which defendant’s negligence actually caused the harm. [ Summers v. Tice , 199 P.2d 1 (Cal. 1948) ]
Effect of Alternative Causes Doctrine on Defendant’s Liability Where the plaintiff successfully invokes the alternative causes doctrine, the burden will shift to each negligent defendant to show that his or her negligence did not cause the injury. Each defendant who fails to make that showing will be held liable. [ Summers v. Tice , 199 P.2d 1 (Cal. 1948) ] Example : A hunter and a sportsman are both negligently discharging firearms in an open field. Both are aiming for a lone tree standing some distance away. Unbeknownst either to the hunter or the sportsman, a plaintiff is sleeping against the opposite side of the tree. A bullet strikes the plaintiff, causing serious injury. In the ensuing lawsuit, the plaintiff shows that both the hunter and the sportsman were negligently shooting at the tree and that a bullet struck the plaintiff. Since no one else was shooting in the field that day, the bullet must have come from either the hunter’s gun or the sportsman’s gun. However, it is impossible to tell which defendant fired the particular bullet that struck the plaintiff. This is the archetypal illustration of a case calling for the application of the alternative causes doctrine. Hence, both the hunter and the sportsman will be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, unless either defendant can show that his gun was not the gun from which the injurious bullet was fired. [This example is adapted from Summers v. Tice , 199 P.2d 1 (Cal. 1948) ] Proximate Causation Generally The negligence plaintiff must prove not only that the defendant’s breach of duty was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s harm, but also that the breach was the proximate cause of the harm. The basic purpose of the proximate cause requirement is to ensure that there is a close enough causal nexus between the defendant’s breach of duty and the plaintiff’s harm that it is fair to hold the defendant liable for the harm. The Basic Rule The Restatement sets forth the basic rule: “An actor’s liability is limited to those harms that result from the risks that made the actor’s conduct tortious.” [Restatement (Third) of Torts: Phys. & Emot. Harm § 29] The defendant will not be liable for harms that are too far removed in terms of space, time, and causation from the defendant’s breach of duty. Rationale Recall that a duty of care generally arises where the defendant can reasonably foresee that his conduct places another at an unreasonable risk of harm. The proximate cause
requirement is meant to ensure that a defendant is held liable for only those injuries that arise out of the particular risk , the reasonable foreseeability of which gives rise to the imposition of a duty. [ See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Phys. & Emot. Harm § 29, with
You've reached the end of your free preview.
Want to read all 196 pages?
- Spring '08