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Where a defendant's conduct creates a foreseeable zone of risk, the law generally will recognize a duty placed upon the defendant either to lessen the risk or see that sufficient precautions are taken to protect others from the harm that the risk poses. Thus, as the risk grows greater, so does the duty, because the risk to be perceived defines the duty that must be undertaken.
Thomas McCain was injured when the blade of a mechanical trencher he was operating struck an underground Florida Power Corporation electrical cable. An employee of Florida Power had come out earlier and marked those areas where it would be safe to use the trencher. Although the evidence at trial was conflicting, there was some evidence indicating that McCain was in an area marked "safe" when he struck the cable. Later, a jury awarded McCain a verdict of $ 175,000, including a thirty-percent reduction for McCain's own comparative negligence. On appeal, the Second District reversed and remanded for entry of a directed verdict for Florida Power, concluding that the injury was not foreseeable. The method of analysis used to reach this conclusion is somewhat unclear. The district court first cited a number of cases suggesting that foreseeability itself gives rise to the duty of care in a negligence action. Since duty is a question of law, an appellate court obviously could reverse based on its purely legal conclusion that no such duty existed. Then, the district court acknowledged the seemingly contradictory holding of some Florida courts "that the question of foreseeability is for the trier of fact." Without expressly disagreeing with this precedent, the district court went on to suggest that no duty existed in the present case as a matter of law because the specific injury suffered by McCain was not foreseeable. Finally, the court expressly stated that its opinion was based solely on the evidence adduced up to the time of Florida Power's motion for directed verdict, which occurred at the end of McCain's case-in-chief. The district court concluded that the denial of this motion was error and that everything occurring afterward was a nullity.
Did the district court err in ruling that no duty existed in the present case as a matter of law because the specific injury suffered by McCain was not foreseeable?
The court quashed the opinion and reinstated the verdict. The district court's method of analysis was unclear. But it erred in confusing the duty and proximate causation elements. Foreseeability can be relevant to both elements. Merging the two elements into a single hybrid foreseeability analysis can lead to an imprecise foreseeability analysis which would lead to the wrong result. The district court mistakenly assumed that the power company's duty was to foresee the specific sequence of events that led to petitioner's injury, in light of the precautionary measures the company had already taken. This allowed the duty element to subsume the question of proximate cause, resulting in the court's improper attempt to resolve on appeal a factual question that should have been left for the jury.