In most civil trials, the most important word…

…also happens to be the shortest:  “A.”

Getting a jury to truly understand the critical importance of that littlest of words, and apply it accurately, is often the difference between victory and defeat.  This is especially true in a civil trial that is centered around negligence, and negligent corporate behavior.

Judge Robert Ervin is handed a jury verdict awarding $6 million to families whose relatives were killed, finding that a corporation's failure to erect a safety traffic signal was "A proximate cause" of a fatal car crash.

Judge Robert Ervin is handed a jury verdict awarding $6 million to families whose relatives were killed, finding that a corporation’s failure to erect a safety traffic signal was “A proximate cause” of a fatal car crash.
(Photo by Diedra Laird of The Charlotte Observer.)

For in order to find a defendant liable for someone’s injuries or wrongful death, a civil jury is charged with determining whether certain negligent behavior was “a proximate cause” of those injuries or death.

Here’s the actual charge that a judge (like Judge Robert Ervin of Morganton, pictured at right) would give to a civil jury empaneled in a negligence case:

“The plaintiff not only has the burden of proving negligence, but also that such negligence was a proximate cause of the [injury] [damage].

Proximate cause is a cause which in a natural and continuous sequence produces a person’s [injury] [damage], and is a cause which a reasonable and prudent person could have foreseen would probably produce such [injury] [damage] or some similar injurious result.

There may be more than one proximate cause of [an injury] [damage]. Therefore, the plaintiff need not prove that the defendant’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of the [injury] [damage]. The plaintiff must prove, by the greater weight of the evidence, only that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause.”     — N.C.P.I.  MV 102.91

     The $6 million verdict in Mecklenburg County this week probably provided a good example.  I was not involved in this trial in any way, but I do know all the attorneys (and the judge I’ve known forever since we were at Davidson together).  Just reading between the lines of all the news accounts, I am positive the jury struggled with this concept of “proximate cause.”

Channel 9's Mark Becker reports on verdict.  (You can hear the clerk asking whether the Defendant's negligence was "A proximate cause" of the crash?

Channel 9’s Mark Becker reports on verdict. (You can hear the clerk asking whether the Defendant’s negligence was “A proximate cause” of the crash?

The plaintiff’s attorneys had argued that the defendant real estate corporation was negligent in failing to erect a traffic signal at the entrance to one of its properties, and that such a failure was “a proximate cause” their clients’ deaths in a horrific car crash.  I am willing to bet this was critically important in this this case, because the crash occurred when two young drivers were drag-racing at nearly 100 MPH down the road that runs by the entrance, slamming into a vehicle driven out of the entrance.  It’s easy to argue that such clearly reckless behavior by the racing drivers was the most important cause, and a clearly a more heinous cause, of these tragic deaths.

But the law is clear —  “…the plaintiff need not prove that the defendant’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of [the crash]. The plaintiff must prove…only that the defendant’s negligence was A proximate cause.” 

Again, sometimes the most important word in a trial is the smallest word of all.

Read more in my upcoming LEGAL TRENDS e-newsletter.

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About Mike Daisley - Civil Litigation Attorney, Mediator, Writer, Licensed Lay Preacher (Episcopal Church, Diocese of North Carolina)

Mike Daisley is a civil litigation attorney and Certified Mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina, and owner and president of "DaisleyLegal" a virtual law firm focused on helping victims of drunk driving injuries and other careless individuals and corporations. He devotes a significant time of his practice as a mediator in North Carolina's Superior Courts, using his 35 years of litigation experience to counsel and assist opposing parties to resolve their disputes and lawsuits cooperatively, avoiding the high expenses and time commitments involved in going to trial. In addition to his commitment to Civil Trial Advocacy and Alternative Dispute Resolution, Mike is also an avid writer, and has a wide array of interests outside of his legal practice, including stints as a columnist for The Charlotte Observer, political analyst for WCNC-TV and WBT Radio. Mike’s biggest passion outside the law is learning and writing about theology, and especially the role doubt plays in faith, the role faith plays (or should play) in politics, and (as he puts it) the “beauty and deep mystery” of the liturgy. Mike is a lifelong Episcopalian, and often jokes that means "I am a raging agnostic at least two or three days a week.” In 2019, he was appointed by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina as a licensed Lay Preacher in the Episcopal Church. (A sample of Mike’s preaching can be heard here: http://www.stmartins-charlotte.org/content.cfm?id=2245&download_id=269#attached_content) To discuss the possibility of teaching, lecture, sermon or interview requests (or to make any comments or suggestions about the “WithGladness” blog) you may contact Mike at any Office email : Mike@DaisleyLegal.com Personal email: MikeDaisley@outlook.com Office voicemail: (704) 554-2306 Mike Daisley & Associates, LLC 1515 Mockingbird Lane, Suite 400 Charlotte, North Carolina 28209
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