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Under Michigan law, an actor will not be held liable for his negligent conduct unless that conduct is a legal or proximate cause of the harm to the plaintiff. There may be more than one proximate cause of an injury, and thus the mere fact that some other cause concurs, contributes, or cooperates to produce an injury does not relieve any of the parties whose negligent conduct is one of the causes of the plaintiff's harm. An actor's negligent conduct will not be a legal or proximate cause of the harm to another unless that conduct is a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. One of the considerations in determining whether an actor's conduct is a substantial factor in bringing about the harm to another is the number of other factors which contribute in producing the harm and the extent of the effect which they have in producing it. Where a number of events each contribute to the ultimate harm, one may have such a predominant effect as to make the effect of a particular actor's negligence insignificant. On the other hand, where none of the contributing factors has a predominant effect, their combined effect may act to dilute the effect of the actor's negligence and prevent it from becoming a substantial factor in bringing about the harm.
Charlotte Rand filed a complaint, seeking damages for the wrongful death of her husband, Charles Rand. Plaintiff alleged that her decedent died as a result of lung cancer caused by asbestosis contracted during his 26-year career as an asbestos insulation worker. Plaintiff named as defendants the nine employers her decedent had worked for from 1951 until 1977; the other defendants settled, leaving Fibreboard Paper Products Corporation as the sole defendant. During the course of the trial, the plaintiff proposed to offer exhibits 61-64, which detailed various workers’ compensation claims made against the defendant in the late 1950's and early 1960's. The purpose of the exhibits was to show that the defendant had actual knowledge or notice that exposure to asbestos dust constituted a risk to the health of the asbestos insulators through the contraction of asbestosis or lung cancer. The trial court denied the admission of these exhibits on the ground that their probative value was significantly outweighed by their prejudicial effect. When the case was submitted to the jury for its verdict, it was instructed by the trial judge on the issue of contributory negligence by Mr. Rand. On this point, the jury found Mr. Rand's history of smoking cigarettes for 30 years to have been evidence of negligence. In comparison with that of the defendant, Mr. Rand's negligence was found to be 55 percent of the cause of his death. However, pursuant to a ruling made before the case was submitted to the jury, the trial court refused to apply the doctrine of comparative negligence, and held the defendant responsible for 100% of the injury which resulted in Mr. Rand's death. The defendant appealed.
Did the trial court err in holding the defendant responsible for 100% of the injury which resulted in the victim’s death?
The court affirmed the decision. The court found that the decedent's autopsy indicated that he died from cancer resulting from asbestosis and that there was a massive amount of asbestos in his lungs. The court also found that while the personal representative could not have directly proven that the corporation's asbestos fibers caused the disease that led to the decedent's death, the personal representative did establish that during the time the decedent worked with the corporation's product, the air was extremely dusty and that when asbestos dust was visible, it necessarily implied an extreme exposure. The court concluded that reasonable minds could have found that the decedent inhaled asbestos fibers. Although the decedent would have been contributorily negligent with regard to lung cancer caused solely by his cigarette smoking, there was no indication on the record that he was aware or should have been aware of the risk of cigarette smoking as it related to asbestos and asbestos-related lung cancer.