The Impact of The Passage of Time on the Ability to Prove Causation

A truck driver who negligently caused a car wreck on an interstate highway cannot be held responsible for an accident occurring four hours later in traffic backed-up because of the original crash.

In Blood v. VH-1 Music First, No. 09-399 (7th Cir. Feb. 9, 2012), the appellate court affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the original at-fault truck driver arising from a claim brought by persons injured and killed in the later crash.  The plaintiffs in the second crash did not sue the driver of the first crash.  Rather, the defendants in the second case filed third-party complaints against the driver in the original crash.  Only then did the plaintiffs in the second crash sue the driver in the first crash.

The case was dismissed because the trial court found, and the appellate court agreed, that there was no proximate cause as a matter of law.  The 7th Circuit explained that there was no real dispute about what happened:  the second wreck was 4 and 1/2 miles away and 4 hours after the first.  In addition, the Blood vehicle slowed to a stop in traffic and the second defendants slammed into the rear of that car.

I agree with the holding in this case.  While the question of proximate cause must ordinarily be left for the jury, there are some cases where the material facts are not in dispute and reasonable minds must conclude that there is (or is not) causation as a matter of law.   As the Court explained, "in law as in life lines have to be drawn," and I have no complaint with where the line was drawn under these facts.