Before the judge can take the question of proximate cause away from the jury and determine it himself, the facts must not only be undisputed, but the inference to be drawn from those facts must be such that fair-minded men ought not to differ about them. It must be concluded that this is so, when it is considered that proximate cause is a cause which would probably, according to the experience of mankind, lead to the event which happened, and that remote cause is a cause which would not, according to such experience, lead to such an event. Now, whether a given cause will probably lead to a given result is plainly to be determined by the average experience of mankind; that is, by a jury rather than by a legal scholar on the bench.
The victim brought a negligence action against the railroads and a tank car company to recover damages for the personal injuries he sustained from a gas explosion that occurred after a train derailment. It was undisputed that the explosion was caused by a lighted match thrown onto the street by an individual, who claimed to have used it to ignite a cigar. The trial court gave the jury peremptory instruction that although the railroad company may have been negligent in permitting the tank car to be derailed, such negligence was not the proximate. Instead, it was the individual’s act of throwing the match purposely that was the proximate cause thereof. Following such instruction, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the railroads and tank car company.
May the trial court determine proximate cause for the jury?
The court reversed and remanded the judgment in part because in holding that the individual in lighting or throwing the match acted maliciously or with the intent to cause the explosion, the trial court invaded the province of the jury. It was for the jury and not the trial court to determine from all the evidence whether the lighting of the match was done by the individual inadvertently or negligently, or whether it was a wanton and malicious act.