U.S. District Court Rejects Defendant’s Causation Defense in Tractor-Trailer Death Case

James Archibald was a diabetes patient who had called his wife to say he was coming home from work early because he was feeling ill. Archibald was driving along a westbound rural road in southern Illinois at about 9 p.m. Suddenly, he encountered a hazard: A tractor-trailer owned by Orbit Express was blocking both lanes; other westbound drivers had managed to avoid the tractor-trailer.

A few hours earlier, the Orbit Express truck driver tried to turn around and got stuck when a rear tire on his big rig went into a ditch. Although the tractor’s headlights made it look like it was moving east, the trailer completely obstructed the westbound lane. Archibald reportedly crashed into the trailer at full speed, with no swerving or breaking. He died a few months later; before his death, he had been unable to explain what had happened.

Orbit Express moved for summary judgment on this tort claim filed by Archibald’s widow. Orbit Express focused on the causation requirement.

According to Orbit, the alleged negligence by its driver merely created a “condition” that didn’t qualify as a “cause of an accident.” Orbit also maintained that the plaintiff couldn’t establish proximate cause because there was no evidence that Archibald was “coherent or cognitive” when he crashed into a hazard that other drivers had managed to avoid since sundown. Orbit also claimed that the “equal hypothesis” or “equal inference” doctrine applied.

The district court judge rejected these arguments and denied Orbit’s motion for summary judgment.

When it comes to cause and fact, asking “whether the defendant’s conduct was a cause of the injury or simply furnished a condition by which the injury was made possible,” is in effect the same as asking “whether the defendant’s conduct was a material and substantial element in bringing about the injury.” First Springfield Bank & Trust v. Galman, 720 N.E.2d 1068 (Ill. 1999).

In this case, the court turned to the defendant’s contention, which is unsupported by any citation to legal authority, that in order to establish proximate cause, the plaintiff must show that Archibald was “coherent or cognitive” at the time of the incident, or otherwise show why Archibald failed to avoid colliding with the trailer.

The court disagreed. All the plaintiff is required to show is that the injury would not have occurred absent the defendant’s negligence and that the injury was the fact that would be expected from the defendant’s negligence.

Defendant’s argument is another way of saying plaintiff must prove the nonexistence of any potential superseding cause of the incident and his own contributory negligence, e.g., that he was not distracted, impaired by an emergency medical situation, or driving negligently in some other manner, and was instead driving vigilantly and had his vehicle under proper control.

But “the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove a series of negatives; he doesn’t have to offer evidence which positively excludes every other possible cause of the accident.” BCS Services v. Heartwood 88, 637 F.3d 750 (7th Cir. 2011).  See also D.C. v. S.A., 687 N.E.2d 1032 (Ill. 1997) (explaining that the plaintiff in a negligence action does not have to plead or prove their own lack of contributory negligence or that defendants’ negligence was the sole proximate cause of their injuries).

As for Archibald’s alleged own negligence, defendant did little more than present speculations, e.g., “It is possible that, before the accident, the decedent fell asleep. It is possible that he went into a diabetic coma. It is possible that he was merely not paying attention.”

As best the court can tell, quoting the federal district court judge’s opinion, there is one piece of evidence, and it is entirely circumstantial, from which it could be inferred that Archibald was potentially negligent: other vehicles were able to brake and avoid the trailer and Archibald did not.

Reasonable people could draw different inferences from this fact. In other words, this fact is not one from which only a single inference flows. It is certainly not enough for the court to conclude as a matter of law that Archibald was negligent, let alone that he was so negligent it was beyond reasonable anticipation and completely overrode defendant’s negligence to become the intervening, superseding, and sole proximate cause of this incident.

In summary, the plaintiff presented evidence that Archibald suffered the sort of injury that would be the expected consequence of defendant’s negligence, and there is no irrefutable, unequivocal evidence of a superseding cause that broke the causal connection between defendant’s negligence and Archibald’s injuries and subsequent death.

Furthermore, the “equal hypothesis” or “equal inference” rule provides that “where proven facts give equal support to each of two inconsistent inferences, judgment as a matter of law must go against the party having the burden of proof.” Pennsylvania R.R. v. Chamberlain, 288 U.S. 333 (1933). Where the facts are undisputed and there are several inferences deducible and equally consistent with all those facts, then “the plaintiff has not maintained the proposition upon which alone he would be entitled to recover.” Chamberlain, 288 U.S. at 339.

Accordingly, for the reasons stated, the federal district court denied defendant’s Orbit’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence that defendant’s negligence was at least a proximate cause of the complained of injury. There is enough in facts to survive defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Archibald v. Orbit Express, 18-CV-1101 (S.D. Ill. Sept. 2, 2020).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling wrongful death lawsuits, truck accident cases, car accident lawsuits, motorcycle accident cases, bicycle accident cases and catastrophic injury lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Rosemont, Roselle, Bloomingdale, Lake Zurich, West Chicago, Glendale Heights, Villa Park, Wheaton, Joliet, St. Charles, Geneva, Hinsdale, Western Springs, Riverside, Berwyn, Summit, Countryside, Willow Springs, Darien, Woodridge, Bolingbrook, Romeoville, Oak Forest, Crestwood, Palos Hills, Oak Park, Oak Lawn, Schaumburg, Des Plaines, Wheeling, Long Grove, Bannockburn, Wilmette, Winfield, Olympia Fields, Chicago (Avondale, St. Ben’s, Lakeview, Buena Park, Sheridan Park, Bowmanville, Magnolia Glen, Edgewater Glen, Pulaski Park, Hollywood Park, South Edgebrook, West Ravenswood, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, Little Italy, Park Boulevard, Paul Dean Square, East Hyde Park, Parkway Gardens, Stony Island Park, Burnside, Calumet Heights, Cottage Grove Heights, East Beverly, Scottsdale, Wrightwood, Lithuanian Plaza, Chicago Lawn, Chrysler Village), Bedford Park, LaGrange, Melrose Park, Elmhurst, Addison, Bensenville and South Barrington, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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