A superseding cause is an unanticipated action that happens in between the initial wrongdoing in a chain of events and the resulting damage or injury. That action then interrupts or breaks the connection of the inciting incident to the injury thereby superseding the original offense and becoming the sole proximate cause (i.e. the act most directly involved in the injury).
The doctrine of superseding cause holds that in situations where it can be shown, and the court decides, that the effect of the superseding cause outweighs the effect of the original event, then the party responsible for the original event can be exempt from liability, no matter how substantial the original event was.
However, not all events can be considered a superseding cause. It must be an unforeseen and extenuating action that was sufficient enough to become the true cause.
Defendants may try to prove a superseding cause in civil lawsuits as an attempt to exonerate themselves by shifting causation elsewhere. As stated in Davis v. Dallas County, “a superseding cause is the only means by which the first negligent defendant can break the chain of causation and be relieved of liability.”
Defendants may try to prove a superseding cause as an attempt to exonerate themselves.
Why does it work this way? Historically, the doctrine reflects the courts’ attempt to limit a defendant’s liability to foreseeable and reasonable bounds. According to the ruling in Cecala v. Newman, a superseding cause “arises only when an intervening force was unforeseeable and may be described, with the benefit of hindsight, as extraordinary.” Therefore, the court considered it “unfair to hold a defendant liable under such extraordinary circumstances.”
However, there has been some debate as to the viability of the doctrine of superseding cause.
Kreindler partner Andrew Maloney, along with attorney David Beekman, handled a products liability case in Connecticut involving two workers injured in a fall due to the failure of a defective roof bracket. Experts testified that the metal was thinner than the manufacturer’s own requirements. The defendant argued for, and the judge instructed the jury to consider, the doctrine of superseding cause, pointing out that the plaintiffs’ employer did not provide secondary fall protection, and the brackets were insufficiently fastened, although that claim was unsubstantiated. The jury did consider it, and the judgment was for the defendants.
The appeal went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which stated that since the jury agreed the bracket was “defective and unreasonably dangerous” then it should have been found to be the proximate cause of the injuries. The court added the judge should not have mentioned “superseding cause” to the jury at all. The original ruling was overturned, and a retrial was ordered. Furthermore, the court also decided that the doctrine of superseding cause should be mostly abandoned and only used in exceptional cases.