Serrano v. Dickinson
6/14/23, Judge Gross
Topics: Intervening Cause; Proximate Cause; Summary Judgment Standard
A good outcome for a plaintiff! This case arises out of two accidents that occurred within a short time on a rainy afternoon on the Florida Turnpike. Defendant Dickinson lost control of her Jeep, which collided with the median barrier and came to rest in the middle of the two southbound lanes. An off-duty cop stopped to help. Dickinson smelled smoke and oil and decided to walk across the road to the right median.
As cars and trucks slowed or stopped because they saw the jeep, one semi-truck slowed to a stop, but another semi-truck apparently didn’t notice and plowed into the back of the first semi after braking only at the last second. That rear offender’s semi jackknifed, and a backhoe loader that it was hauling fell off of the truck and landed on top of a Plaintiff Clark’s Camaro. Plaintiff had stopped her car on the highway after seeing the Jeep accident ahead. Plaintiff Clark suffered a shattered ankle and other injuries. About 90 seconds elapsed between the Jeep striking the median and the real semi rear- ending the front semi.
Plaintiff Clark sued the driver of the jeep for negligence and because she was apparently on the clock, she sued her employer for vicarious liability. Plaintiff Clark also sued the rear-offender semi- truck driver (Mr. Serrano) for negligence and his employer, Central Florida Equipment Rentals, Inc. (“CFER”) for vicarious liability and negligent failure to maintain the semi truck (due, apparently, to the possibility that something faulty about the brakes made it impossible for the driver to stop).
The Jeep driver’s employer (Biomet) moved for summary judgment, arguing that the backhoe falling onto Plaintiff’s Camaro was not really the Jeep driver’s fault. Biomet argued that the rear- offender trucker’s own negligence or the poor condition/negligent maintenance of the semi itself (if the driver was unable to brake) were independent and intervening causes of the plaintiff’s injuries that were not the responsibility of the Jeep driver. Naturally, the Jeep driver joined her employer’s motion.
The trial court sided with the Jeep driver and her employer, finding, at the summary judgment phase, that there was enough separation in time between the Jeep ramming the median and Serrano rear-ending the semi that the semi-truck accident (the second accident) was an intervening cause that broke the chain of causation between the Jeep driver’s own negligence and the injury resulting from the backhoe falling onto Plaintiff’s Camaro.
The Plaintiff appealed. The DCA notes that intervening cause is something that “absolves a negligent actor of liability,” and the doctrine is “conceptually tied into the proximate cause element of negligence.” Proximate cause is concerned with whether and to what extent the defendant’s conduct foreseeably and substantially caused the specific injury that actually occurred. Harm is proximate if prudent human foresight would lead one to expect that similar harm is likely to be substantially caused by the specific act or omission in question. It is not necessary, however, that the initial tortfeasor be able to foresee the exact nature and extent of the injuries or the precise manner in which the injuries occur. And the question of foreseeability as it relates to proximate causation generally must be left to the fact-finder to resolve. The judge can take the issue from the jury only where the facts are unequivocal and the evidence supports only one reasonable inference. Where reasonable persons could differ as to whether the specific injury was genuinely foreseeable or merely an improbable freak, resolution must be left to the fact-finder.
Intervening cause extinguishes an original tortfeasor’s liability only where the intervening cause is completely independent of, and not in any way set in motion by, the original negligence. If an intervening cause is foreseeable, the original negligent actor may still be held liable. The question of whether an intervening cause is foreseeable is a question for the trier of fact. Whether an intervening cause was foreseeable to the original tortfeasor turns on whether the harm that occurred was within the scope of the danger attributable to the defendant’s negligent conduct.
Here, the relevant question was whether the subsequent accident (the semi rear-end accident) was the type of harm that may be expected from a stationary vehicle blocking lanes on an expressway or an interstate highway? And the DCA stated that the answer, well-established by case law, is yes. After going through case after case essentially saying that subsequent accidents foreseeably arise from an initial car accident, the summary judgment order was REVERSED AND REMANDED.
But one final note of EXTREME INTEREST to personal injury lawyers is WHAT was deemed foreseeable in the eyes of the DCA in that it creates, in dicta at least, a somewhat surprising laundry list of foreseeable byproducts of an original traffic accident.
On an expressway or interstate highway, with no stop lights or stop signs and the potential for highway hypnosis, a driver’s inattention can arise from a multitude of causes, including using a cell phone, changing radio stations, falling asleep, or dealing with children fighting in the backseat. Because such inattention is a foreseeable cause of a collision with a stopped vehicle on an expressway, the law permits the conclusion that Dickinson’s conduct set in motion a chain of events resulting in injury to the plaintiff.
At least in dicta, this seems for foreclose intervening-cause defenses and may even have comparative negligence implications for subsequent or second defendants in multi-car pileups where the fact that a second driver was, for instance, texting while driving, will not shift all liability away from the first tortfeasor.
The majority also added that under the Supreme Court of Florida’s holding in McCain v. Fla. Power Corp., 593 So. 2d 500 (Fla. 1992), which is relied on throughout the opinion, the test of foreseeability does not require a defendant to foresee exactly how an accident will unfold. The law does not require an absurd degree of specificity. As the McCain court explained, “it is immaterial that the defendant could not foresee the precise manner in which the injury occurred or its exact extent.” McCain, 593 So. 2d at 503.
CHIEF JUDGE KLINGENSMITH CONCURRED SPECIALLY with a single paragraph, noting that while the outcome was correct in this case, he questioned the viability of Cooke v. Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 14 So. 3d 1192, 1193, 1197 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009), a case relied upon by the majority, because of the new summary judgment standard. Cooke had a similar holding, but in that case, the second accident occurred despite a cop setting out road flares warning of an accident scene. That accident had occurred over an hour prior to the second accident. Chief Judge Klingensmith notes, “A long time interval between an initial roadway accident and a subsequent mishap might well justify a judicial finding of the existence of an intervening cause,” but the gap in this case was only 90 seconds and they were all reacting to the Jeep’s accident in real time, not an hour later after road flares were set out to warn drivers.