Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Causation must be a continuous force up to the time of harm.

The Pa Superior Court has affirmed a Cambria County Court of Common Pleas decision where a fatal house fire was found not to have been proximately caused by an electric company's negligent termination of electrical power to the home two days earlier.  Eckroth et al. v. Pennsylvania Electric Inc., 2010 Pa. Super. 235.  Full opinion available here

This case arose out of a fire that occurred on May 14, 2005. Power to the house in question had been shut off by the electric company for "chronic nonpayment of bills."  One of the victims attempted to resolve the power outage to no avail.  Two days after the power was shut off one of the children in the home had friends over for a sleep over.  That night, the mother of the house, placed a lit candle in the kitchen and in the bathroom to illuminate the house for the children.  During the night, one of the candles caused a fire in which, tragically, four people perished.  The estates of the deceased filed suit, among others, against the electric company.  The basic theory being that the electric company was negligent for prematurely shutting the power off and "but for" this negligence the candles that caused the fire would not have been lit that night.

 The Court noted that a determination of proximate cause is "primarily a problem of law" and must be "determined by the judge and it must be established before the question of actual cause is put to the jury."  Brown v. Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, 760 A.2d 863, 868 (Pa. Super. 2008).  The Court further noted that in Pennsylvania, "proximate causation is defined as a wrongful act which was a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff's harm."  Lux v. Gerald E. Ort Trucking, Inc., 887 A.2d 1281, 1286 (Pa. Super. 2005).  A determination of proximate or legal causation therefore essentially regards "whether the alleged negligence was so remote that as a matter of law, the defendant cannot be held legally responsible for the subsequent harm."  Holt v. Navarro, 932 A.2d 915, 921 (Pa. Super. 2007).

Therefore, the Pennsylvania Court must determine whether the injury would have been foreseen by an ordinary person as the natural and probable outcome of the act complained of.  The Court must evaluate the alleged facts and refuse to find and actor's conduct was the legal cause of harm when it appears to the court highly extraordinary that the actor's conduct should have brought about the harm..  Holt at 921.

The Pa. Superior Court held that the following considerations are in themselves or in combination with one another important in determining whether the actor's conduct is a substantial factor in bringing about harm to another:

(a)  the number of other factors which contribute in producing the harm and the extent of the effect which they have in producing it;

(b)  whether the actor's conduct has created a force or series of forces which are in continuous and active operation up to the time of the harm, or has created a situation harmless unless acted upon by other forces for which the actor is not responsible;

(c) lapse of time.

I just do not understand how this issue of negligence and causation was found to be "so remote" so that as a matter of law, the electric company could not be held legally responsible for the harm.  The Court found that the electric company, in fact, prematurely shut off the power, had breached a duty and was thus negligence.  There was also catastrophic harm.  But no causation linking the two.  How can this be?  If the power was not shut off, the candles would never have been used to light the house.  Once that power is shut off a causative force is set in place.  This force remained active right up to the point, two days later, when the decision was made to light the house with candles.  Yes, the candle played a role in the fire.  But THE substantial factor in causing that candle to be lit was the electric company's negligence in shutting the power off.

From the electric company's point of view, if you shut a person's power off, there are obvious implications.  Until that power is back on, that person has to find a way to light their house (in the winter, they would have to heat the house, necessitating a fire or kerosene heater, among other options).  There are various ways a person in this day and age is going to light their house.  Sure they could go out and buy flashlights and nightlights.  But, I am guessing, when a person can't pay their electric bill, they probably do not have a lot of disposable income.  Candles are the cheapest alternative.  Thus for people who have had their power shut off, there is a high likelihood that they are going to turn to candle light.  Candles are open flames.  Open flames can cause fires...exactly what happened in this case.  Thus, this tragic outcome, though unusual, was completely foreseeable.  At a minimum, whether this was foreseeable should have been determined by a jury not by the court as a matter of law.

One could argue that permitting this issue to be heard by a jury would place an unfair burden on the electric company.  I think this is misplaced for two reasons.  First, there is no guaranty that a jury would hold the electric company responsible but at least the victims would have had their case determined by their peers.  Second, forseeability is only relevant here because the electric company was negligent for shutting off the power too soon.  If the electric company had properly shut off the power then there would be no negligence and the issue of causation would be moot. Share this post :
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