…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.
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.”
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.