Like the determination of negligence, proximate cause is a question of fact and a district court's findings are only set aside if clearly erroneous. To demonstrate proximate cause in Nebraska a plaintiff must show that (1) without the negligent action, the injury would not have occurred, commonly known as the "but for" rule; (2) the injury was a natural and probable result of the negligence; and (3) there was no efficient intervening cause. To establish proximate cause, a plaintiff is not bound to exclude the possibility that the event might have happened in some other way. Rather, he must only adduce evidence sufficient to fairly and reasonably justify the conclusion that the defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of his injury.
The driver was driving 63 miles per hour on a 50-mile-per-hour gravel road at night. When the driver neared the warning sign for a curve, he braked too late to prevent the car from going off the road. The driver alleged that his injuries were the result of the county's negligent placement of the sign warning about the curve and its negligent failure to maintain it. The driver sued the county, alleging negligence regarding an automobile accident. The United States District Court for the District of Nebraska found both parties negligent, apportioned 60% of the negligence to the county and 40% to the driver, and awarded the driver damages. Both parties appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Did the district court err in its decision?
The appellate court determined that the district court did not err in finding the county negligent because the record supported the findings that the sign was neither retroreflective nor adequately placed to warn nighttime drivers. The district court did not err in determining that the county's negligence was a proximate cause of the accident, because the evidence gave rise to a reasonable inference that the driver slowed the car in response to the sign and thus would have slowed earlier and avoided the crash or its severity had the sign been placed further from the curve or been legible from a greater distance, and his travel 13 miles per hour in excess of the speed limit was readily foreseeable. Also, the district court did not clearly err by not finding that the driver's negligence exceeded that of the county.