In every negligence action for injuries or wrongful death the plaintiff must establish (1) a duty owed by the defendant; (2) the defendant’s breach of the duty; and (3) and that said breach proximately caused the damages claimed.
In negligence actions Florida courts follow the more likely than not standard of causation and require proof that the negligence probably caused the plaintiff’s injury. See Tampa Electric Co. v. Jones, 138 Fla. 746, 190 So. 26 (1939); Greene v. Flewelling, 366 So.2d 777 (Fla. 2d DCA 1978), cert. denied, 374 So.2d 99 (Fla. 1979); Bryant v. Jax Liquors, 352 So.2d 542 (Fla. 1st DCA 1977), cert. denied, 365 So.2d 710 (Fla. 1978). Prosser explored this standard of proof as follows:
On the issue of the fact of causation, as on other issues essential to his cause of action for negligence, the plaintiff, in general, has the burden of proof. He must introduce evidence which affords a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it is more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in bringing about the result. A mere possibility of such causation is not enough; and when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant.
The north star of the law of causation is the landmark supreme court decision in Gooding v. University Hospital Building, Inc., 445 So. 2d 1015, 1020 (Fla. 1984). The Florida Supreme Court described the case as follows:
Emily Gooding, personal representative of Mr. Gooding’s estate, brought a wrongful death action against the hospital alleging negligence by the emergency room staff in not taking an adequate history, in failing to physically examine Mr. Gooding, and in not ordering the laboratory tests necessary to diagnose and treat Mr. Gooding’s abdominal aneurysm before he bled out and went into cardiac arrest. Mrs. Gooding’s expert witness, Dr. Charles Bailey, a cardiologist, testified that the inaction of the emergency room staff violated accepted medical standards [i.e., there was a breach]. Dr. Bailey, however, failed to testify that immediate diagnosis and surgery more likely than not would have enabled Mr. Gooding to survive.
The trial court denied the hospital’s motion for directed verdict on causation. The jury found the hospital liable and awarded damages. The hospital appealed. The First District Court of Appeal reversed on the grounds that the trial court should have directed a verdict in favor of the hospital because Mr. Gooding’s chances of survival under the best of conditions were no more than even. The plaintiff, therefore, could not meet the more likely than not test for causation. The Supreme Court affirmed the DCA on this holding.
What is a directed verdict? A directed verdict is “where no proper view of the evidence could sustain a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party.” Friedrich v. Fetterman & Assocs., P.A., 137 So.3d 362, 365 (Fla. 2013) (quoting Owens v. Publix Supermkts., Inc., 802 So.2d 315, 315 (Fla. 2001)); see also Cox v. St. Joseph’s Hosp., 71 So.3d 795, 801 (Fla. 2011) (explaining “a directed verdict is appropriate in cases where the plaintiff has failed to provide evidence that the negligent act more likely than not caused the injury”).
The Gooding Rule was applied nearly 40 years later in R.J. Reynolds v. Nelson, 47 Fla. L. Weekly D2436 (Fla. 1st DCA, Nov. 23, 2022), a tobacco case. Reynolds was sued for strict liability and ordinary negligence alleging a design defect of Reynolds’ cigarettes caused Mr. Roosevelt Gordon to develop COPD. (He passed away in 2021, shortly after the jury trial in this case. His daughter, Rosena Nelson, was appointed personal representative of his estate.) As in Gooding, the trial court was reversed on appeal for failing to grant a directed verdict. Citing “the lack of any evidence of Reynolds’ proximate cause of Mr. Gordon’s fatal disease,” the appellate court decided that a directed verdict on both the strict liability claim and the negligence claim should have been granted by the lower court.
Not all proximate cause cases go against the plaintiff. In Aragon v Issa, MD, 103 So.3d 887 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), the trial judge was reversed for granting a motion for judgment in accordance with the motion for directed verdict against the plaintiff. The appellate court decided that since the plaintiff presented evidence that could support a jury finding that the defendant more likely than not caused the death of Aragon, it was improper for the trial judge, instead of the jury, to weigh conflicting evidence and assess the credibility of the witnesses.
In Claire’s Boutiques v Locastro, 85 So.3d 192 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), the appeals court decided that the trial court was correct in denying defendant’s motion for directed verdict on proximate cause. The defendant urged that a directed verdict should have been granted since there was insufficient evidence that its actions “caused” the infection and resulting injuries. The court noted:
In negligence cases, like the present one, “Florida courts follow the more likely than not standard of causation and require proof that the negligence probably caused the plaintiff’s injury.” Gooding v. Univ. Hosp. Bldg., Inc., 445 So.2d 1015, 1018 (Fla.1984). If sufficient evidence is offered to meet this standard, the remaining questions of causation are to be resolved by the trier of fact. Wallace v. Dean, 3 So.3d 1035, 1047 n. 18 (Fla. 2009).
Proximate cause does not equal primary cause. In Ruiz v. Tenet Hialeah Healthsystem, Inc., 260 So.3d 977 (Fla. 2018), a medical malpractice wrongful death case, numerous medical providers were sued. Finding that one of the doctors did nothing more than place decedent in a position to be injured by the independent actions of third parties — namely, the surgeons — the trial judge granted a directed verdict in the doctor’s favor. Ruiz appealed, and the district court affirmed the trial court’s ruling, concluding that no competent, substantial evidence in the record would allow a reasonable factfinder to conclude Dr. Lorenzo was the “primary cause” of Espinosa’s death. Ruiz v. Tenet Hialeah Healthsys., 224 So.3d 828, 830 (Fla. 3d DCA 2017). The Supreme Court reversed.
Since the ruling below involved a directed verdict, the Supreme Court framed the issue as follows:
[W]hether there was competent, substantial evidence in the record which would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that Dr. Lorenzo, more likely than not, proximately caused Espinosa’s death.
With supporting citations, the Court explained that “the law does not require an act to be the exclusive or even the primary cause of an injury in order for that act to be considered the proximate cause of the injury: rather, it need only be a substantial cause of the injury.” As an example, it pointed to Sardell v. Malanio, 202 So.2d 746, 746-47 (Fla. 1967), a case in which the Court held that a young boy who threw a football to his friend could be held to have proximately caused the injuries sustained by a passerby with whom his friend collided as he tried to catch the ball. It rejected the district court’s reasoning in Sardell that the boy who threw the ball had no physical control over the pass catcher and had no reason to expect the collision with the plaintiff, so that boy’s act of throwing the football could not be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Id. at 747 (quoting Sardell v. Malanio, 189 So.2d 393, 394 (Fla. 3d DCA 1966)).
The Court concluded its opinion as follows:
Our precedent makes clear that Dr. Lorenzo cannot prevent Ruiz from establishing proximate cause merely by showing his actions or omissions were not the primary cause of Espinosa’s death. Instead, to foreclose liability on the grounds of causation, Dr. Lorenzo’s acts or omissions must not have substantially contributed to Espinosa’s death as part of a natural and continuous sequence of events which brought about that result. See McCain, 593 So.2d at 502-03; Gooding, 445 So.2d at 1018. To obtain a directed verdict on this basis, Dr. Lorenzo must show there is no competent, substantial evidence in the record which would permit a reasonable factfinder to reach such a conclusion at all. See Friedrich, 137 So.3d at 365; Cox, 71 So.3d at 801.
Interestingly, proximate cause is always applicable in workers’ compensation cases:
The established rule in workers’ compensation is that a causal relationship between an employee’s injury and the industrial accident must be shown by competent substantial evidence. § 440.02(1) & (17), Fla. Stat. (1991) (defining “accident” and “injury,” respectively); Gator Industries, Inc. v. Neus, 585 So.2d 1174 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991); Stephens Trucking Co. v. Bibbs, 569 So.2d 490 (Fla. 1st DCA 1990).
In Escambia County Board of County Commissioners v. Reeder, 648 So.2d 222 (1994), the claimant, who was hurt when he was thrown from a bulldozer that rolled over, used the rule to defeat the employer/carrier’s efforts at reducing his compensation by 25% pursuant to section 440.09(5), Florida Statutes, which reads as follows:
If injury is caused by the knowing refusal of the employee to use a safety appliance or observe a safety rule required by statute or lawfully adopted by the department, and brought prior to the accident to the employee’s knowledge, or if injury is caused by the knowing refusal of the employee to use a safety appliance provided by the employer, the compensation as provided in this chapter shall be reduced 25 percent.
The bulldozer was equipped with a safety belt but not a shoulder harness. Claimant, who had been advised to wear the safety belt, was not wearing the belt at the time of the accident. He asserted that, in order to reduce his compensation, E/C must prove a causal connection between his failure to wear the safety belt and his injuries. The judge of compensation claims (JCC) agreed and after taking evidence on the issue, ruled that although Claimant had been aware of and had knowingly disregarded Employer’s valid safety rule, the proof was insufficient to establish the requisite causal connection (between the injury and the failure to wear a safety device) that would justify Employer’s taking a statutory 25 percent reduction in Claimant’s indemnity benefits. The JCC’s ruling was affirmed on appeal.
Like a football receiver taking his eye off the ball in the heat of the moment or a tennis player forgetting the importance of sound footwork, in complex cases, especially, lawyers sometimes lose sight of the fundamentals. Fundamentals always matter. In personal injury cases, proximate cause is a fundamental.
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