Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Recent Illinois Appellate Court opinion shows Illinois law is out of touch with generally accepted principles of tort law

I just read a recent opinion of the Illinois Appellate Court which, based on an analysis developed by the Illinois Supreme Court, makes me think Illinois is due for a nice makeover when it comes to the notion of causation.  The case is called O'Neill v. General Motors and here is my quick comment.

The facts of the case are relatively simple:  The plaintiffs’ car suddenly and unexpectedly stopped on the road because an electronic control module in the car malfunctioned. Later, while trying to find a solution to their problem, the plaintiffs were injured when an intoxicated driver ran into the rear of their vehicle. The defendants (the manufacturer of the component and the seller of the car) filed motions for summary judgment arguing that their conduct was not the proximate cause of plaintiffs' injuries because the conduct of the intoxicated driver was a superseding cause.  The circuit court agreed and dismissed the claims.  The plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, using convoluted and confusing language inherited from precedent cases, the court affirmed applying an analysis that, at least in part, does not follow generally accepted principles of tort law.

Because the defendants conceded that the defective product was a cause in fact of the injuries, the only issue before the lower court was whether to take away from the jury the question of proximate cause.  To decide that, the court should have asked whether reasonable people would disagree that the plaintiffs' injuries were a foreseeable consequence of the risk created by the conduct of the defendants.  And the answer, in my opinion, clearly should have been yes.

The conduct of the defendant created the risk that the driver and occupants of the car would get stranded in the middle of the road.  For that reason, it is reasonably foreseeable that they would be exposed to the typical risks related to being stranded on the road which include being injured by another driver.  This is why courts typically hold that when a defendant's negligence exposes another to a an automobile accident, the conduct of the person who causes the accident is not a superseding cause.

In O'Neill, however, the court held the opposite.  Its analysis seems to be based, in part, on the now abandoned Second Restatement's approach and on a unique approach to the character of intervening causes.

The defendants main argument in support of the proposition that the conduct of the intoxicated driver should be considered to be, as a matter of law, a superseding cause was that the conduct was criminal in nature.  In other words, the defendants were arguing that the conduct was unforeseeable because it was criminal. This would require the court to hold that all criminal conduct is, by definition, unforeseeable.

Because this is clearly not the case, the generally accepted principle is that foreseeability is not determined by the character of the conduct.  But Illinois apparently does not follow generally accepted principles of tort law.  As the court explains, in Illinois “[a] criminal act is a superseding cause of a plaintiff's injury and relieves the originally negligent defendant of liability, except where the defendant’s acts or omissions create a condition conducive to a reasonably foreseeable intervening criminal act.”

I don't understand what this "exception" really means.  Is it just saying that a criminal act is not superseding if it is foreseeable?  If that is all this means, then I have no problem with it.  That is the generally accepted principle.  But I don't think that is what the statement says.  It seems to say that the criminal act is not superseding only if the original defendant created the risk that someone else would commit a criminal act, which does not make sense.  If the original defendant created that risk, there would be no issue of superseding cause to talk about.

In addition, the court’s analysis confuses what it is that the plaintiff should be arguing is foreseeable.  While the type of harm suffered must be reasonably foreseeable, the precise manner in which it occurs and the extent of the harm need not be foreseeable.  Given that it can be argued that the conduct of the defendant created the risk of harm associated with being stranded in the middle of a road, whether the injury was caused by a drunk driver or a negligent driver or a driver who falls asleep at the wheel should make no difference.

In the end, I think the court simply wanted to decide in favor of the defendants – maybe because the judge thought it would have been unfair not to –  and used the notion of proximate cause to justify the result.  For this reason, although I think the case was wrongly decided, the decision does illustrate that as a noted commentator has already stated “[w]hile the intervening intentional wrongdoing of a third party may, under the circumstances, be foreseeable and not superseding, the relative culpability of an intervening force will inevitably influence, particularly in a close case, the decision to characterize an intervening force as superseding.”  (Diamond, Understanding Torts, 4th ed. p. 193).

UPDATE: (3/14/14):  One of the blog's readers just wrote to me with an important clarification about this case.  The Illinois Appellate Court’s decision is an unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23 and, as such, the case may not be cited as precedent.  

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