166 S.W.3d 713
• Plaintiff pedestrian sued defendant property owners after she was injured while stepping off a sidewalk. The Circuit Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, granted summary judgment for defendants. The Court of Appeals (Tennessee) affirmed. The plaintiff appealed.
• The plaintiff was walking home from a bus stop in Memphis, Tennessee. As she left the sidewalk, she tripped over a chunk of concrete and fell into the street. Her left hip was crushed in the fall. She filed suit against defendant property owners, on theories of premises liability and public nuisance. Memphis, Tenn., Code of Ordinances § 34-120 required property owners to keep sidewalks free from overgrowth.
• How does one establish the cause in fact element in a negligence case?
• The defendant’s conduct is the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injury if, as a factual matter, it directly contributed to the plaintiff’s injury. We must ask whether the plaintiff’s injury would have happened “but for” the defendants’ act.
• A negligence claim requires proof of the following familiar elements: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; and (5) proximate or legal cause.
• A negligence claim requires proof of two types of causation: causation in fact and proximate cause.
• Causation in fact and proximate cause are distinct elements of negligence, and both must be proven by the plaintiff by a preponderance of the evidence. Cause in fact and proximate cause are ordinarily jury questions, unless the uncontroverted facts and inferences to be drawn from them make it so clear that all reasonable persons must agree on the proper outcome.
• The defendant’s conduct is the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injury if, as a factual matter, it directly contributed to the plaintiff’s injury. The court must ask whether the plaintiff’s injury would have happened “but for” the defendants’ act. If not, then the defendants’ conduct is a cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injury. It is not necessary that the defendants’ act be the sole cause of the plaintiff’s injury, only that it be a cause.
• Proximate cause puts a limit on the causal chain, such that, even though the plaintiff’s injury would not have happened but for the defendants’ breach, defendants will not be held liable for injuries that were not substantially caused by their conduct or were not reasonably foreseeable results of their conduct. Thus, proximate cause, or legal cause, concerns a determination of whether legal liability should be imposed where cause in fact has been established.
• Proximate cause is addressed with a three-pronged test: (1) the tortfeasor’s conduct must have been a “substantial factor” in bringing about the harm being complained of; and (2) there is no rule or policy that should relieve the wrongdoer from liability because of the manner in which the negligence has resulted in the harm; and (3) the harm giving rise to the action could have reasonably been foreseen or anticipated by a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence.
• The existence of a duty is a question of law. To determine whether a particular defendant owes a duty of care to a particular plaintiff, the court balances the foreseeability and gravity of the potential harm against the feasibility and availability of alternatives that would have prevented the harm. Although all the balancing considerations are important, the foreseeability prong is paramount because foreseeability is the test of negligence.
• The judgment of the court of appeals was reversed, and the case was remanded to the trial court.
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