Cause-in-fact is the initial inquiry in a duty-risk analysis. Cause-in-fact is usually a "but for" inquiry which tests whether the injury would not have occurred but for a defendant's substandard conduct. The cause-in-fact issue is usually a jury question unless reasonable minds could not differ.
Cay, a twenty-seven year-old single offshore worker, returned to his home in Sandy Lake from a seven-day work shift on November 3, 1987. Later that afternoon his sister drove him to Jonesville, thirteen miles from his home, to obtain a hunting license and shotgun shells for a hunting trip the next day. Cay cashed a check for $ 60.00 and paid for the hunting items, but remained in Jonesville when his sister returned to Sandy Lake about 7:00 p.m. Around 10:00 p.m. Cay entered a barroom and stayed until about 11:00 p.m., when he left the barroom on foot after declining an offer for a ride to his home. He carried an opened beer with him. Five days later, Cay's body was discovered on a rock bank of the Little River, thirty-five feet below the bridge across the river. Cay would have had to cross the bridge in order to travel from Jonesville to his home. Cay's body was found in a thicket of brambles and brush. The broken brush above the body and the lack of a path through the brush at ground level indicated that Cay had fallen from the bridge. There was no evidence suggesting suicide or foul play. There was evidence, however, that Cay, who was wearing dark clothes, was walking on the wrong side of the road for pedestrian traffic and was intoxicated. The trial concluded that the decedent accidentally fell and apportioned fault 60 percent to the department and 40 percent to the decedent. The court affirmed the judgment, finding that the department built the bridge with the knowledge that pedestrians were going to use the bridge and with the knowledge that standards required a minimum height for railings on bridges used by pedestrians.
Did plaintiffs prove that respondent's construction of the bridge railing at a height lower than the minimum standard for pedestrian traffic was a cause-in-fact of the decedent's fall from the bridge?
The court found that the department failed to build the bridge in accordance with standards and that the failure was a cause-in-fact of the accidental fall. Accordingly, the court held that concurrent fault in causing the accident rendered the department liable for damages, subject to a reduction for contributory negligence. However, the court amended the judgment, concluding that the trial court manifestly erred in allocating 60 percent of the fault to the department. The court amended to quantify the decedent as 90 percent at fault and the department as 10 percent at fault. The court determined that the decedent's intoxication and his negligence in failing to follow rules for pedestrian travel at night were significant factors in his fall.