When there is a substantial probability that a defendant's negligence was a cause of an accident, and when the defendant's negligence makes it impossible, as a practical matter, for plaintiff to prove "proximate causation" conclusively, it is more appropriate to hold the defendant liable than to deny an innocent plaintiff recovery, unless the defendant can prove that his negligence was not a cause of the injury.
Plaintiffs, a mother and her daughter, brought a wrongful death action after the family father and son drowned in defendant motel's pool. The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants. On appeal, plaintiffs challenged the trial court's refusal to find as a matter of law that defendants were negligent and that this negligence was the proximate cause of the deaths. Plaintiffs also challenged the trial court's refusal to give a jury instruction regarding contributory negligence, and the trial court's exclusion of two health inspection reports. The court reversed the judgment of the trial court The court found that where defendants' statutory violation was negligence per se, there was a substantial probability defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of the deaths, and defendant's negligence made it impossible for plaintiff to prove proximate cause conclusively, defendant bore the burden of proof regarding proximate cause.
Did defendant overcome the burden of proof that its negligence was not the proximate cause of the deaths?
The court essentially agreed and reversed, but remanded for a new trial because the parties' respective burdens were not clearly defined at trial. The court found that plaintiffs sustained their initial burden of proof and that defendants then bore the burden of showing that defendant's statutory violation was not a cause of the deaths. The court found it was error for the trial court not to give plaintiffs' requested instruction that, as a matter of law, the child was not contributorily negligent. The court also found the inspection reports were admissible as relevant to the issue of wilful and wanton negligence.