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Colorado Looks at the Role of Causation in Premises Liability

On Behalf of | Jun 30, 2022 | Premises Liability and Retail Defense

The Colorado Court of Appeals recently reviewed and reversed the summary judgment made in favor of a landowner in a premises liability case.

The case, Martinez v. Cast, centered around the injuries to two children whose mother had pushed them out of a window to avoid being engulfed by a fire in the building. The children’s mother and father claimed the landowner had failed to provide adequate smoke alarms. The landowner countered that the fire, not the lack of smoke alarms, had caused the children’s injuries.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals rejected the way the trial court had interpreted the question of causation. In turn, it offered greater insight into the idea of causation for premises liability.

Questions of causation generally belong with a jury

The Court of Appeals began by revisiting the idea that trial courts may only offer summary judgments when there are no disputes over issues of material fact. Here, it cited Capitran Inc. v. Great W. Bank, stating, “[T]he trial court’s function is to determine whether any material facts are disputed, not to assess the credibility or weight of the evidence.” That job falls to the jury.

The landowner argued the plaintiff had failed to show that the lack of smoke alarms led directly to the children’s injuries. The plaintiff had not clearly shown where the fire originated or how it spread through the building. Accordingly, the landowner argued it was unclear when any functional smoke alarms may have sounded. It was impossible to determine that the children would have escaped without injuries “but for” the lack of functioning smoke alarms.

However, the Court of Appeals suggested that the trial court had erred by accepting the landowner’s argument about causation as a matter of law. Instead, the Court of Appeals pointed again to Capitran, noting that questions of causation belong with the jury. Courts should only resolve questions of causation as matters of law when “reasonable minds can draw but one inference from them.”

In other words, the trial court had erred by failing to consider the different inferences “reasonable minds” could make about how the lack of smoke alarms could have affected the case. The Court of Appeals point to a few places the trial court may have stumbled:

  • It claimed the plaintiff’s lack of information about the fire’s origin and spread undercut its arguments that smoke alarms may have offered valuable warning
  • It argued the plaintiff’s expert testimony was without merit because it didn’t quantify the likelihood that smoke alarms may have reduced or prevent the children’s injuries
  • It took these two previous points as evidence there were no disputes of material fact

In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals noted the evidence could lead “reasonable minds” to make different inferences. There was more at stake than simply whether functioning smoke alarms would have completely prevented the children’s injuries. It was not simply a “but for” issue. The Court of Appeals illustrated this fact by citing three examples of inferences from other jurisdictions.

The examples proved it was possible for reasonable minds to draw more than one inference from the evidence. Accordingly, the trial court erred in resolving the issue of causation as a matter of law. It should have treated the question of causation as a dispute of material fact. The question belonged with a jury.

More than one issue preventing a summary judgment

The Court of Appeals explored more than the question of causation in Martinez v. Cast. As it sent the case back to trial, the Court of Appeals also noted two separate concerns:

  • There were questions as to which fire code set the standard of care that was in effect at the time of the alleged negligence
  • Despite the landowner’s claims, there were reasons for a jury to decide whether the landowner may have known the property lacked adequate smoke alarms

These concerns further invalidated the trial court’s summary judgment as a matter of law, and we will review them in a future blog.