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A look at proximate cause in premises liability cases

On Behalf of | Dec 19, 2022 | Premises Liability and Retail Defense

Like property owners, general contractors may have a duty to keep their worksites reasonably safe. The terms of their contracts with subcontractors may shift some of this responsibility, but they may still have general responsibilities that they cannot shake.

This was the case in a recent ruling from the Illinois First District Court of Appeals. A subcontractor had fallen at a work site and sued the general contractor on three counts of negligence. The trial court had sided with the general contractor. Its summary judgment said there was no evidence to suggest the general contractor had owed the subcontractor a duty of care. The appellate court disagreed and overturned the summary judgment.

The court noted that even though the general contractor did not owe a duty of care under section 414 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, it owed a general duty of care under the rules for premises liability claims. In a previous blog, we explored this duty of care.

Today, we explore the second concern before the appellate court. This is the matter of proximate cause. The general contractor had claimed there was no evidence to suggest its actions caused the subcontractor’s injuries. The trial court had agreed, but the appellate court overturned it. Why?

The facts of the case

As we noted in our previous look, the case of Ellis v. ICC Group, Inc. centered around a subcontractor’s fall and subsequent injuries. Joseph Ellis had gone to work on a project managed by ICC Group and found no obvious way to get from the north side of the dam on which he was working to the south side. There were no stairs or railings, and the man with whom Ellis was working said everyone was just vaulting the dam gate that blocked their path.

Ellis did not feel up to vaulting the gate, so he used a heavy nylon cord to join two ladders. He used these joined ladders to climb over the gate. He had no problem crossing from the north side to the south, but when he tried climbing back, he fell and injured his spine.

What was the cause of Ellis’ injury?

Once the court of appeals ruled that ICC owed Ellis a duty of care, it still had to consider whether there was evidence to suggest ICC’s actions may have caused Ellis’ injuries. Of course, ICC claimed there was no such evidence. The trial court had agreed with ICC, but the appellate court did not.

As a reminder, courts only grant summary judgment when there are no disputes over matters of material fact. If there are any disagreements about facts that could affect the outcome of a case, those questions should go to a jury. They’re not appropriate questions for summary judgment. Accordingly, the court of appeals wasn’t basing its decision on the facts. It was asking whether the law might allow jurors to interpret the facts in such a way that they could rule against ICC.

This leads us to one of the key questions in the case: Was there evidence to suggest ICC’s actions were “proximate cause” for Ellis’ injuries?

Typically, to win an injury case, the plaintiff needs to prove four things:

  • That the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care
  • That the defendant breached that duty
  • That the breach of duty caused the plaintiff’s injuries
  • That the injuries caused measurable damage

Here, the appellate court had to consider the third point. As noted, ICC argued there was no evidence to support its actions caused the injuries. Obviously, Ellis disagreed, but to understand why this was even a question before the court, we have to look at the trial court’s ruling.

Where did the trial court and appellate court diverge?

As the appellate court stated matters, the trial court “found no proximate cause between any alleged negligence and the plaintiff’s injuries.” It gave two reasons for this finding:

  • It decided that ICC’s treatment of the dam gate was a “condition” rather than a “cause” and that the real “cause” was Ellis’ use of the ladder set-up he created
  • It said there was “no evidence of foreseeability” to meet the standards for the “legal cause” aspect of proximate causality

In response, the appellate court noted that injuries can have more than one proximate cause. It also established that plaintiffs must meet clear two hurdles to prove proximate cause. The defendant’s conduct must be:

  • An “actual cause” of the injury. The test for actual cause is whether the defendant’s action is a “material element and substantial factor in bringing about the injury.”
  • A “legal cause” of the injury. The test for legal cause is “foreseeability,” whether a “reasonable person” would see the injury as a likely result of the action.

The appellate court’s opinion suggested the trial court got the matter wrong because it focused on the wrong questions. In saying that ICC’s treatment of the dam gate was a “condition” rather than a “cause,” the trial court was interpreting facts that should have been left to a jury. The question was not whether Ellis’ had done more to cause his injury than ICC had done to cause it. It was whether ICC had done anything that might have caused Ellis’ injury. The appellate court said the trial court had failed to address this question properly. Instead, it had transformed a question of comparative fault into a matter of law.

The trial court’s focus on the ladder set-up also influenced its review of foreseeability. It found no evidence to support the idea ICC could have foreseen Ellis would lash together two ladders to climb over the dam gate. However, the appellate court focused on ICC’s treatment of the dam gate itself.

Here, the appellate court found plenty of evidence to suggest that ICC knew the dam gate blocked normal progress from the north to the south side of the dam. There was also evidence to suggest ICC knew subcontractors would need to work on both sides of the dam. Indeed, ICC’s own staff testified that anyone working on the south side of the dam would need a boat to approach it safely, but ICC had not supplied any boats.

In this case, proximate cause is a question of facts

In the end, the appellate court ruled that the trial court had erred by providing a summary judgment. Importantly, the appellate court did not say that ICC’s actions had caused Ellis’ injuries, but it said the issue was not a matter of law. The facts were in question. Ellis’ argument had enough legal merit that it would need a jury’s review.

For general contractors and other businesses, this is an important point. It can sting when the appellate court overturns a summary judgment, but losing the appeal over a summary judgment isn’t the same as losing the case. Courts are not supposed to award summary judgments when there are any disputes over the facts of the case. This is one of the reasons businesses often want to consider a range of strategies to defend themselves against injury claims.