As discussed in a recent decision from the Massachusetts Appeals Court, to sustain a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed him a duty, that the defendant breached that duty, that the plaintiff was injured, and that the defendant’s breach was the cause of those injuries. Defendants often attack the elements of a plaintiff’s negligence claim by arguing that the plaintiff cannot prove “causation.” In other words, the defendant claims that even if there was a breach of duty, the plaintiff is unable to prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the injury.
It can be especially challenging to prove causation in car accident cases when only one vehicle is involved, and the passengers of that vehicle are injured. In Alford v. Department of Transportation, the plaintiffs were driving on Route 1A when they crashed into the roadside barrier on the ramp to the Massachusetts Turnpike. The plaintiffs were unable to remember the details of the accident, but the investigating police officer, who had spoken with a witness at the scene, was able to provide important information. The police officer testified at his deposition that the driver in the plaintiffs’ vehicle lost control of the vehicle after it contacted heavy snow left behind on the exit ramp. He testified that he observed a strip of snow roughly two feet wide and six to twelve inches deep on the ramp, which extended across two lanes to the roadside barrier. According to the supervisor of highways and tunnels, the road had just been plowed and salted. The officer stated that the snow path was consistent with a set of plows leaving snow behind.
A superior court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, finding that the plaintiffs were unable to show that their injuries were more likely than not caused by the defendant’s negligence in failing to adequately plow the road, rather than some other source. The Appeals Court disagreed and reversed the ruling.
As the Appeals Court stated, to prove causation under Massachusetts law, “[t]he plaintiffs must show that there was greater likelihood or probability that the harm complained of was due to causes for which the defendant was responsible than from any other cause…. If on all the evidence, it is just as reasonable to suppose that the cause is one for which no liability would attach to the defendant as one for which the defendant is liable, then judgment must be entered for the defendant.”
In this case, the deposition testimony of the police officer provided evidence that there was snow left on the road after the defendant’s hired plow had plowed the area, and that when the plaintiffs’ vehicle came into contact with that snow, the driver lost control of the vehicle, resulting in the accident that caused the plaintiffs’ injuries. Had the driver been cited for a driving violation, that may have been evidence that the driver’s own actions were the cause of the accident. However, no citation was issued. Additionally, no other evidence in the record showed that anything other than the snow on the road contributed to the accident. Accordingly, the Appeals Court found that the plaintiffs had sufficiently met their burden of showing causation to permit the case to proceed to trial.
This case illustrates the importance of obtaining statements from witnesses and of calling the police to the scene of an accident to investigate. Often, car crashes occur so quickly that the drivers may not know what happened. Here, because the officer observed the accident scene and spoke with witnesses, his police report and subsequent testimony was crucial to the viability of the plaintiffs’ negligence case.