by: Dave Alden

But-for test; Proximate Cause; Duty; Foreseeable Plaintiff; Superseding Cause

While no one would suggest that the on-field injury that sidelined an NFL athlete led to his death two weeks later, the tragic series of events that befell Sean Taylor illustrates the seemingly simple concept of causation, and how this concept evolved into an important and often controversial doctrine in the world of tort law.

Sean Taylor, a safety for the Redskins, was in a place that most people would regard as safe on the Sunday following Thanksgiving 2007. He was at home, recuperating from a sprained ligament suffered when his team played Philadelphia on November 11th. But-for this injury, Taylor would have been away over the Thanksgiving weekend, when the Redskins played Tampa. The question we ponder is fate. Were it not for the sprained ligament, Taylor would have been in Tampa when armed intruders broke into his home in Miami. If he were away at Tampa, he would not have been shot. Could a simple sprain, that led to him being in harm’s way, ultimately have been the cause of Taylor’s death? Although the relationship between the sprain and burglary two weeks later is probably too attenuated to withstand any of the causation tests, the question illustrates the simple cause-in-fact analysis of tort. The cases that follow reveal some of the complexity and controversy faced by legal scholars who attempt to define a means of determining the legal (proximate) cause of a person’s injury or damage to property.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law defines proximate cause as, “A cause that sets in motion a sequence of events uninterrupted by any superseding causes and that results in a usually foreseeable effect (as an injury) which would not otherwise have occurred”. Superseding cause is defined as, “An unforeseeable intervening cause that interrupts the chain of causation and becomes the proximate cause”. In the sequence of events that led to Taylor’s death, the home invasion and shooting is likely the superseding cause of his death, since it was unforeseeable that his game injury would place him directly in the path of a home invasion two weeks later.

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