Unattended Candles

To foresee or not to foresee, that is the question. Well, at least its the question when you are arguing for summary judgment on the basis of the plaintiff’s failure to produce evidence on the issue of proximate cause. In a recent unpublished decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the court reviewed the seemingly symbiotic relationship between the proximate cause element in a negligence action and the requirement that the injury be a foreseeable consequence from an act or an omission. Graham v. Progress Energy, Inc., No. 08-1906 (4th Cir. June 25, 2010) (unpublished) [PDF].

In Graham, the court was reviewing the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The case arose out of an incident in which the plaintiffs’ home caught on fire. The fire started after the plaintiffs began using candles as a source of light. The reason that they had to use candles was that they failed to pay their electric bill and thus the power to their home was disconnected. On the date that the fire occurred, the plaintiffs had fallen asleep before extinguishing their candles. The plaintiffs sued Progress Energy on a negligence based claim.

The court framed the narrow issue as being “whether a reasonable jury could conclude that Progress’s alleged negligent conduct proximately caused the Grahams’ alleged harm.” The defendants did not dispute causation-in-fact. They admitted that it was foreseeable for the plaintiffs to use candles to illuminate their home. However, Progress Energy contended that the plaintiffs actions (i.e., falling asleep before extinguishing the candles) was an intervening cause that broke the chain of causation. Furthermore, the defendants claimed that while using candles to illuminate their home may have been foreseeable, …”going to sleep with the candles lit or otherwise failing to attend to the candle so as to prevent them from falling was certainly by no means so.”

The court opined that the defendants’ argument “misconstrues the relevant inquiry because South Carolina law does not require that particular events be foreseeable.” The court went on to reason that only the general harm and general intervening cause need to have been foreseeable. The court found that since candle use was foreseeable, a reasonable jury could have concluded that some amount of candle misuse was also foreseeable. Finally, the court pointed to evidence within the record that supported the conclusion that the plaintiffs’ alleged harm was also foreseeable. As such, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment.

The court’s analysis, albeit sound, leaves the ordinary practitioner wondering what is the true meaning of an intervening cause. The answer is found in the procedural posture of this case – this appeal involved the review of a summary judgment order. Perhaps on remand, the once (and future?) fixture of the American judicial system will resolve this issue. Of course, I’m referring to the jury trial. For all of you out there, who like me, have only been practicing law within the last decade, allow me to explain. A jury is the fact finder that resolves factual disputes during a trial. We’ll discuss the term “trial” during our next lesson. As for our weary candle users, one thing we can be sure of– it is foreseeable that the jury will have to determine issues like comparative and contributory negligence before these plaintiffs will be permitted to recover for leaving the light, I mean candle, on.

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