Negligence is a particular type of tort action that involves something the law calls a “duty of care.” The standard of care depends on the facts and circumstances of the case but, generally, the duty of care, in its broadest sense, means each of us should behave responsibly and sensibly, in the way a reasonable person would behave.
To be guilty of negligence, a defendant in a lawsuit must breach that duty of care, and the breach of duty must be the cause of harm to the plaintiff.
The law looks at two types of causation—actual cause and proximate cause. Often, injury and harm is the result of a chain of events. The person who is the actual cause may or may not be legally responsible. Proximate cause is that act in the natural, direct, uninterrupted sequence of events without which the injury would not have occurred. Proximate cause seeks to decide who, in that chain of events, is responsible for the harm. This can get complicated.
First case: Henry runs the red light and, as a result, collides with Mary’s car which is proceeding lawfully through the intersection, injuring Mary. Henry’s negligence is both the actual and proximate cause of Mary’s injury.
Second case: Henry is stopped at the red light. Marvin is talking on his cell phone and fails to stop his car, rear-ending Henry, and sending his car into the intersection where it collides with Mary’s car, injuring Mary. Henry is the actual, but not the legal cause, of Mary’s injury. Marvin’s actions are the proximate cause of Mary’s injury; his actions are the actual cause, sometimes called the “cause in fact”, of the harm.
Susie Marks was seriously injured when the truck in which she was riding failed to negotiate a left turn. On the evening in question, Susie got a ride with Orson to the Elsewhere City Park, where she met her friend, Jerry, and his girlfriend, Kate. Orson said he would pick Susie up at 11:00 p.m. when the park closed. Jerry was a minor who had only been licensed to drive for a few months. He was driving a small truck, the bed of which was covered by a camper shell.
At 11:00 p.m. they were approached by Officer Ruthless of the Elsewhere Police Department, who told them they had to leave the park since there was a curfew and the park was closing. Jerry and Kate got into the truck and Ruthless told Susie to get in the back of the truck. (This state allowed people to ride in the backs of camper trucks without seatbelts.)
Susie told Ruthless she wanted to wait for Orson, or she could walk home, but Ruthless told her to get in the truck. Ruthless told Jerry: “Get everybody out of here,” and that “if you guys don’t get out of here, curfew will be enforced.”
After leaving the park, Jerry made two stops, one just four doors down from Susie’s house. Susie did not leave the truck. Jerry lost control of his truck while making a left turn and Susie was seriously injured when the truck overturned. Approximately one-half hour ensued between the time the group left the park area and the time of the accident.
Following the accident, Susie filed a complaint against the City of Elsewhere, Ruthless, and a number of other defendants. The complaint alleged that the City and Ruthless were liable because Ruthless had negligently ordered Suzie to ride in the back of the truck.