Proximate Cause

Published June 2015
By Ted Babbitt

The seminal case on proximate cause in Florida is Gooding v. Univ. Hosp. Bldg., Inc., 445 So. 2d 1015 (Fla. 1984).  In that case the Supreme Court held:

 [A plaintiff] must introduce evidence which affords a reasonable basis for the conclusion
that it more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in bringing
about the result.  A mere possibility of such causation is not enough; and when the matter remains
oneof pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the
duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant.

That case established that the standard for proof of proximate cause in Florida is “more likely than not.”  That is, plaintiff must prove that the negligence probably caused the plaintiff’s injury.

Evidence of proximate cause can include facts which allow a jury to draw an inference from the direct evidence regarding the causation of plaintiff’s injury as a result of the defendant’s negligence.  Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So. 2d 315 (Fla. 2001).

In Sanders v. ERP Operating Ltd. Partnership, 40 Fla. L. Weekly S85 (Fla. 2015), the Supreme Court of Florida reviewed a decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in ERP Operating Ltd. Partnership v. Sanders, 96 So. 3d 929 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).  In that case the Fourth District held that a directed verdict should have been granted in favor of the owner of an apartment where plaintiff’s decedent was murdered with no evidence of a forced entry and no evidence as to who had committed the murder, or how it had occurred.  There was ample evidence of previous crimes but none of a murder.  The plaintiff’s expert testified that all of the previous crimes and the murder were opportunistic in nature and that the defendant had failed to notify the tenants of these crimes.  There was a serious issue as to whether the plaintiff’s decedent had opened the door for the person who committed this particular crime.

The Supreme Court held that the Fourth District had erred in ordering a directed a verdict on behalf of the defendant.  There was ample evidence of abundant criminal activity prior to the decedent’s death and the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff had raised a reasonable inference that the landlord’s breach of duty of not repairing an inoperable gate, which was the only real means of access to the complex, was sufficient to raise a jury question on the issue of proximate cause.  The Court pointed out that while there were certainly reasonable inferences that the decedent had opened the door for the murderers, this was something that could be considered by a jury on the issue of comparative negligence but was not the basis for a directed verdict.

The Court held that the plaintiff’s expert testimony, together with the surrounding evidence, was sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find that the failure to maintain the security gate and to have a security officer visible more likely than not allowed the murderers to get to the decedent’s door more easily without being detected.  As a consequence, the Court held that the lack of a forced entry was not dispositive on the causation issue.

The Supreme Court held that the existence of multiple crimes which the residents of the complex were not notified about and the fact that on the night of the murder the gate that was supposed to be limiting entrance was not working, all presented sufficient evidence to support plaintiff’s expert’s theory that the inoperable gate and the failure to warn raised an inference that the crime was both foreseeable and preventable.  At S89, the Court held:

Whether or not it was foreseeable that the
residents were in danger of harm because
of the criminals being allowed on the
premises and that ERP’s failure to limit the
unauthorized access caused the deaths of the
decedents was an issue of fact for the jury
to decide.

 

Proximate cause is almost always a jury issue.  For a court to take away the decision concerning proximate cause from a jury and grant a directed verdict there must be only one reasonable inference for the jury to draw from the plaintiff’s evidence.  See Owens, supra, at 322.  So long as it is not necessary to pile one inference on top of another, the jury is permitted to draw any reasonable inference from the direct evidence in order to reach a conclusion that the defendant’s negligence reasonably caused the harm suffered by the plaintiff.  Owens, id, at 329.

This case reinforces the factual nature of the issue of proximate cause and that proximate cause is almost always a jury issue.