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 @ DaisleyLawOffices, PC

Civil Litigation Attorney and Certified Mediator in North Carolina Superior Courts; President of Daisley Law Offices, PC, a law firm devoted to helping Veterans, the Disabled and severely injured victims of corporate or individual negligence. Experienced in Civil Trial Advocacy and Alternative Dispute Resolution, Mike is also a political analyst for WCNC-TV and WBT Radio,a writer and blogger on law, political discourse and theology, and a lifelong Episcopalian (which, as he explains, means "I'm a raging agnostic at least three days a week.") Office email : Mike@DaisleyLawOffices.com (704) 331-8014 Charlotte, North Carolina
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