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By: Theodore C. Peters
Proof of causation is a frequently debated topic in tort cases where the battle between “possible” and “probable” is bitterly fought. Tort victims are left empty-handed unless they can sufficiently demonstrate the causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the harm that befell them. Speculation or conjecture is insufficient; a plaintiff must prove more. But how much more, and where is the line drawn when there is no direct evidence supporting a causal connection and where it is equally plausible that the defendant’s act or omission did not cause the harm in question? The California court of appeal, In Dunlap v. Folsom Lake Ford, recently provided some guidance.
In Dunlap, the plaintiff suffered personal injuries while driving a truck that flipped after its steering allegedly locked up. The defendant car dealership admitted that a previous owner complained of similar steering problems, and there was evidence that the dealership had diagnosed a problem with worn ball joints, but denied that this was the cause of the accident. Rather, the defendant asserted that the accident occurred after the truck and the van it was towing jackknifed when the van suffered a blow out. Prior to the litigation, the insurers took action to destroy both the truck and the van for salvage, so the parties’ experts were unable to physically inspect the vehicles and instead were limited to photographs which were admitted into evidence. The photographs were inconclusive and the parties’ experts thus offered competing opinions of their respective interpretation of this evidence.
The defense accident reconstruction expert opined that, as a consequence of the jackknifing vehicles the truck was forcefully pushed, resulting in the equivalent of a PIT (police-intervention technique) maneuver which pushed the truck into a counterclockwise spin causing the accident. In contrast, the plaintiff’s expert testified that “it was ‘more likely true than not’ that the worn-out ball joints caused the accident, and it was ‘not at all’ a close call. In his opinion, if the ball joints had been replaced, ‘we would not be here today.’” The court also noted that “[t]here was evidence that a particular defect (worn ball joints) was present in the truck, and that [the dealer] was aware the ball joints could cause steering lock and needed to be replaced but failed to replace them or verbally advise the owner to do so.”
The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded over $7.4M in damages. On appeal, the dealership claimed that, because there was no physical evidence that could confirm plaintiff’s expert’s opinion, plaintiff’s evidence as to causation was speculative and plaintiff’s expert should not have been permitted to testify that the ball joints were worn sufficiently to prevent steering. In finding that the record supported a finding of causation based on non-speculative evidence, the court stated: “Expert testimony on causation can enable a plaintiff’s case to go to the jury only if it establishes a reasonably probable causal connection between the act and the injury… A possible cause only becomes “probable” when, in the absence of other reasonable causal explanations, it becomes more likely than not that the injury was a result of its action. This is the outer limit of inference upon which an issue may be submitted to the jury.” The appellate court concluded that substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding of causation, and affirmed the judgment.
The Dunlap opinion is consistent with a growing body of case law that favors letting juries decide issues of questionable causation where the proof satisfies a “more likely than not” standard. While mere speculation and conjecture are certainly not enough, circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences that can be drawn from such evidence are sufficient proof of causation to support a jury verdict.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].