Superseding Causes in Kentucky Personal Injury Cases

by Mandy Hicks

In Kentucky, personal injury cases where negligence is alleged, a plaintiff must establish (1) a duty owed to the plaintiff, (2) breach of the duty, (3) that proximately causes injuries, and (4) actual damages. Negligence, including the element of causation, is never presumed in Kentucky. What happens, however, if some surprising act occurs to cause an accident that is not related to a defendant’s otherwise negligent conduct? A “superseding cause” can absolve a defendant if it is extraordinary and independent — that is not arising out of a negligently created condition.

In a recent unpublished opinion that illustrates how Kentucky looks at the issue of superseding causes, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky considered a case involving two accidents on opposite sides of an interstate highway. The first accident involved the defendant’s car, which she had driven into the median and hit the base of the eastbound bridge under the roadway. The second accident happened when the plaintiffs were driving eastbound. They had come to a total stop in a traffic jam after the defendant’s car’s accident. A tractor-trailer rear-ended their vehicle, killing a family member and injuring another.

The plaintiffs sued the defendant, claiming that her first accident directly and proximately caused their injuries and damages. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that her accident had happened more than a mile away and that the traffic jam was the result of the emergency personnel’s response and the negligence of the tractor-trailer driver, not her driving. The defendant argued that both of these events were superseding causes of the plaintiffs’ injuries. The trial court agreed, ruling that the first responders had stopped traffic and the  tractor-trailer’s negligence were both superseding causes.

The plaintiffs made a motion to vacate the Order dismissing the case, arguing that a reasonable jury could find that the defendant’s negligent driving set the course of events in motion that led to their damages. When their motion was denied, they appealed.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued they had put forward enough evidence to show a chain of events caused by the defendant’s negligence injured them. The defendant had fallen asleep at the wheel, swerving into the grassy median. When the car traveled under the bridge, the responders had to go down more than 70 feet to get to her vehicle. The traffic near that bridge immediately braked because her car approached and went under the bridge causing a traffic jam. The cars backed up more than a mile in less than 2 minutes. This prevented the tractor-trailer driver from braking in time to avoid hitting the plaintiffs’ stopped car.

The appellate court explained that the first event in the chain (the defendant’s negligence in falling asleep at the wheel) was undisputed. However, they reasoned that the focus of the analysis was whether the third link was supported by affirmative evidence.

The appellate court reasoned that whether an act is a superseding cause is a legal issue for the court. The plaintiff argued that whether the traffic jam caused the tractor-trailer to be unable to brake in time was a disputed issue for the jury. However, the plaintiffs could only show their own accident had happened in connection with the traffic jam.

If the tractor-trailer driver had not been able to stop in time solely because of the traffic jam, there would have been other accidents as well. There was nothing in the record to show why he failed to brake in time or that there was something about the traffic jam that stopped him from being able to brake. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

If you are seriously hurt in a car accident, you should consult with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible to determine whether any relief is available to you. The knowledgeable Kentucky personal injury attorneys of English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley may be able to help. Contact us at 270-781-6500 or via our online form.