Two men were injured in Georgia after an employee took his employer’s van and caused a series of traffic accidents. The two sued the driver’s employer (LMN) for negligence, alleging that it failed to properly supervise the employee. The trial court granted LMN’s motions for summary judgment, finding that the employee’s intervening criminal conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries. On appeal, the Court of Appeals considered whether the employee’s intervening criminal conduct relieved the employer of liability for the alleged negligence of its employee.
The employee worked for LMN as a plumber’s assistant. He reported to a general superintendent. One morning in August 2017, the two men met at LMN’s office and drove together to a job site about an hour and a half away, where they were finishing a piping job. The superintendent drove them to the site in one of the company trucks. The employee was quiet during the drive, but at some point, he told the superintendent he’d used drugs over the weekend and made comments about whether life was worth living. The superintendent was aware that the employee was having some difficulty at home. He noted that the employee seemed concerned, but wasn’t agitated and didn’t look to be under the influence of drugs.
When they arrived at the job site, the employee continued making similar comments. He said he felt overwhelmed and disappeared for a while. The superintendent assumed he’d gone to the bathroom, but unbeknownst to him, the employee went to the third floor of the building to commit suicide. When he returned to the superintendent, the employee was visibly agitated, crying, and sweating profusely. The superintendent told the employee to sit down and have some water, he remained agitated and continued sweating.
Concerned, the superintendent brought the employee to the truck to cool off in the air conditioning. He started the truck and left the employee sitting in the passenger seat, as he went to finish the job. At that point, the superintendent thought the employee appeared to be in control of himself, even if not back to normal. However, he walked away from the truck, and the employee sped off, causing multiple traffic accidents, including the ones that injured the plaintiffs, before plowing the truck into a restaurant. The employee later told the superintendent he was trying to kill himself.
The superintendent had never seen the employee act this way before, and he didn’t believe the employee to be suicidal when he left him in the truck. Instead, he thought the employee, who was a veteran, might be experiencing PTSD as he had on a job site once before. At the time of the accident, the employer didn’t let the employee to drive the truck due to his prior DUI and reckless driving convictions.
The employee later pled guilty to 16 counts of serious injury by vehicle, DUI, and reckless driving. The plaintiffs sued LMN and the employee, alleging claims of negligence in connection with the superintendent’s decision to leave the employee in the running truck knowing that he was suicidal. LMN moved for summary judgment, arguing that the employee’s criminal conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries. The trial court granted summary judgment.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred by finding that the superintendent’s conduct wasn’t the proximate cause of the injuries because the employee’s actions were a foreseeable risk that the superintendent should have appreciated.
The Decision of the Court of Appeals
Judge Todd Markle of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that to state a negligence claim, the plaintiff must establish the following:
- A legal duty;
- A breach of the duty;
- Causation; and
- Damages (aka Injuries suffered)
As to causation, the judge explained that a plaintiff must show that the alleged negligence was both the “cause-in-fact” and the proximate cause of the damages. Proximate cause is that which, “in the natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by other causes, produces an event, and without which the event would not have occurred.” Quoting an earlier decision, the judge wrote:
A negligent actor who breaches a duty to another is not responsible for a consequence which is merely possible, according to occasional experience, but only for a consequence which is probable, according to ordinary and usual experience. It is important to recognize that probable, in the rule as to causation, does not mean “more likely than not,” but rather “not unlikely”; or, more definitely, . . . such a chance of harmful result that a prudent man would foresee an appreciable risk that some harm would happen. . . . And, while proximate cause is ordinarily a jury question, it will be determined by the court as a matter of law in plain and undisputed cases.
Where the injuries are the result of a criminal act by a third party, however, the rule is that an intervening and independent wrongful act of a third person producing the injury, and without which it would not have occurred, should be treated as the proximate cause, insulating and excluding the negligence of the defendant. But, this rule does not insulate the defendant if the defendant had reasonable grounds for apprehending that such wrongful act would be committed. Stated differently, if the character of the intervening act claimed to break the connection between the original wrongful act and the subsequent injury was such that its probable or natural consequences could reasonably have been anticipated, apprehended, or foreseen by the original wrong-doer, the causal connection is not broken, and the original wrong-doer is responsible for all of the consequences resulting from the intervening act.
Applying this rule, the Court of Appeals explained in another recent decision that a determination that a defendant’s conduct wasn’t the proximate cause of the injury isn’t a determination that no causal connection existed but that, the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury are too remote for the law to allow recovery. The benchmark is foreseeability, the judge explained, and where the criminal conduct isn’t foreseeable, the rule acts to limit liability.
Here, the trial court found that the superintendent’s negligence wasn’t the proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries due to the employee’s intervening criminal conduct. In other words, the criminal conduct wasn’t foreseeable because a probable or natural consequence isn’t the same thing as a possible consequence where that possible consequence isn’t reasonably predictable. The Court noted that there was no evidence that would have made the theft and high-speed chase reasonably predictable, but rather showed only that such a result was “merely possible, according to occasional experience, and not probable, according to ordinary and usual experience.”
Applying this rule, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court properly granted summary judgment because the employee’s criminal act of stealing the company van and driving into traffic wasn’t a probable consequence of the superintendent’s conduct.
Judge Markle noted that while there were signs that the employee was struggling emotionally, his theft of the truck in an effort to commit suicide wasn’t a “probable and natural consequence” that the superintendent could reasonably have anticipated, apprehended, or foreseen. The employee and the superintendent both knew that the employee wasn’t allowed to drive the truck, and he’d never taken the truck before without permission. The employee didn’t appear to be under the influence of drugs, he hadn’t previously experienced any kind of impulsive behavior on the job site due to his PTSD, and he hadn’t made the superintendent aware of his earlier attempt to jump from the building.
As a result, the employee’s conduct was “too remote” to render the employer liable. Accordingly, the trial court properly granted summary judgment, and the judgment was affirmed. Self v. Local Mech. Networking, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 420 (Ga. App. September 8, 2023).
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