Law School Case Brief
Barry v. Quality Steel Prods. - 263 Conn. 424, 820 A.2d 258 (2003)
The function of the doctrine of superseding cause is not to serve as an independent basis of liability, regardless of the conduct of a third party whose negligent conduct may have contributed to the plaintiff's loss. The function of the doctrine is to define the circumstances under which responsibility may be shifted entirely from the shoulders of one person, who is determined to be negligent, to the shoulders of another person, who may also be determined to be negligent, or to some other force. Thus, the doctrine of superseding cause serves as a device by which one admittedly negligent party can, by identifying another's superseding conduct, exonerate himself from liability by shifting the causation element entirely elsewhere. If a third person's negligence is found to be the superseding cause of the plaintiff's injuries, that negligence, rather than the negligence of the party attempting to invoke the doctrine of superseding cause, is said to be the sole proximate cause of the injury.
Plaintiffs Neil Barry and Bernard Cohade were employed as carpenters by DeLuca Construction Company (DeLuca). Plaintiffs were putting shingles on a roof when the platform staging on which they were working collapsed, causing them to fall to the ground and sustain severe injuries. Immediately prior to the collapse, plaintiffs were working on a wooden plank attached to the roof by roof brackets designed and manufactured by defendant Quality Steel Products, Inc. (Quality Steel) and purchased from defendant Ring's End, Inc. Plaintiffs filed separate product liability actions against defendants in Connecticut state court; the actions were later consolidated. DeLuca intervened and filed a complaint against defendants seeking to recover the amounts that it had paid to plaintiffs in workers' compensation benefits. Defendants, by way of counterclaim, alleged that DeLuca owed them a duty of indemnification for all costs arising out of plaintiffs' claims. The trial court granted DeLuca summary judgment on the counterclaim. At trial, plaintiffs filed a motion to deny defendants' request to charge the jury on the doctrine of superseding cause. The court denied the motion and, at the end of the testimony, the trial court instructed the jury on the doctrine of superseding cause. The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants on all counts. The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion to set aside the verdict and rendered judgment for defendants. Both sides appealed.
Was the doctrine of superseding cause applicable in plaintiffs' products liability action?
The court affirmed in part and reversed in part the trial court's judgments and remanded the matter for a new trial. The court ruled, inter alia, that the doctrine of superseding cause should not have been presented to the jury. The doctrine of superseding cause, as applied in plaintiffs' case, no longer played a useful role in Connecticut's common law of proximate cause. Thus, plaintiffs were entitled to a new trial. The court affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment to DeLuca. The court agreed with the trial court that defendants failed to cite any authority recognizing a duty arising under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations that could be imposed on a plaintiff's employer for the benefit of manufacturers or distributors sued for personal injury allegedly sustained from on-the-job use of an alleged defective product.
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