Now, the New York State Court of Appeals has ruled in Hain v. Jamison that it should be up to a jury to decide whether the farm owner should be liable for its failure to keep or retrieve its cattle. The lower courts have gone back and forth on the issue. The calf had gotten loose in the roadway as an apparent result of the defendant’s failure to keep it property enclosed or to come find it after it had escaped. The farm argued its error in letting the calf escape and also its failure to find it in time wasn’t a proximate cause of the woman’s death. The trial court denied the motion. But the appellate division reversed, finding the farm’s negligence provided the occasion for – but did not cause – the woman to enter the road, where she was then hit by the defendant driver. The New York State Court of Appeals reversed, finding the farm did not meet its proof burden in showing an absence of issues of material fact. Specifically, the question of what proximately caused the decedent’s death was a matter to be decided by the jury – rather than the judge.
That means the plaintiff, the decedent’s widowed husband, may continue with his wrongful death claim against all originally named defendants.
According to court records, the driver said she was driving northbound on the rural roadway in question just after 10 p.m. She slowed down to negotiate a curve, and then as she rounded the bend, she noted headlights from a vehicle stopped in the southbound lane. As her vision re-adjusted to the lighting as she passed that car, she saw the calf and the woman, who was standing in the roadway. The driver struck both.
The calf had, according to the farm owner, been born only just that day. The farm owner said he did not realize the calf had escaped and didn’t learn about it until his wife’s daughter informed him at around 10 p.m. The stepdaughter said she learned about it when another relative, who also lived on the property, called to tell her that a neighbor had seen the calf loose on the road about 45 minutes before. The farm owner said he left his house right away to try to find the newborn animal, at which time he came upon the car accident scene.
After the lawsuit was filed, the farm owner sought summary judgment in his favor. Both the plaintiff and the defendant driver opposed this motion, arguing there was a question of material fact as to whether the woman’s death was a foreseeable consequence of the negligence by the farm owner. In support of this opposition, the plaintiff noted testimony from the farm owner and an affidavit from a neighbor noting the poor shape of the fence, as well as prior occasions on which cattle had escaped from the property and wandered into the road. The farm owner insisted the fence was not broken at the time of the incident.
The lower court, in denying the farm owner’s motion for summary judgment, held it could not find as a matter of law that the decedent’s choice to get out of the vehicle and lead the calf back to its enclosure was a sufficiently extraordinary and unforeseeable act that it broke the chain of causation.
By the time the matter reached the state court of appeals (the highest court in that state), the panel ruled that while foreseeability and proximate cause are generally questions for the factfinder (i.e., the jury), there can be some instances when proximate cause can be a matter of law because there is only a single conclusion that can be drawn from the established facts. This, the court held, was not one of those cases.
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Hain v. Jamison , Dec. 22, 2016, New York Court of Appeals
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