If the Defendant Does Wrong, It Still Might not Be Enough to Win a Lawsuit

When suing a defendant for injuries from an accident, occasionally it becomes hard to prove that the accident caused the injury, or that what the plaintiff thinks the defendant did wrong caused the accident itself.  The law requires, however, that this logical gap be closed in order to make the plaintiff’s case.  A recent case from the Oregon Court of Appeals illustrates the problem.


Two plaintiffs were injured in separate sudden-start incidents in an elevator.  They sued the manufacturer and a renovator, both for manufacturing a defective elevator (product liability) and for negligence in manufacture.


The renovator filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs had not compiled enough evidence to go to trial.  The plaintiffs’ response included a sworn declaration from their lawyer that they had hired an expert who was willing to testify that the elevator was defective and that the renovator was negligent.  (Oregon uses this approach to expert opinions because it doesn’t require the names of experts to be disclosed before trial.)


The trial court ruled that the plaintiffs had not submitted any evidence of causation (and that the renovator hadn’t manufactured the elevator, so it wasn’t subject to a product liability claim), and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against the renovator.  (It denied a motion by the manufacturer as to the question of whether the elevator was defective, so the plaintiffs’ claims against the manufacturer were not dismissed.)


The most significant question addressed by the Court of Appeals was whether the expert opinion would be enough to prove the plaintiffs’ case.  It noted that the renovator had argued lack of causation when it filed the motion, and said the plaintiffs knew they had to meet that point.  The way the word “negligence” was used in describing the expert’s opinion did not indicate that it was intended to include causation, so the plaintiffs had simply failed to present the evidence.


A second question was whether the plaintiffs could rely on an old gap-filler rule to prove causation.  If an accident normally does not occur without negligence, and the defendant more probably than not was the cause of the accident (which usually requires showing absence of other causes), the courts may rule that that is enough evidence to prove both negligence and causation.  The court ruled there was no evidence that the sudden starts occurred only because of negligence, and ruled the plaintiffs were out of luck.


Although the court could have stopped there, it also made one additional point.  Product liability claims are based on the sale or manufacture of a product.  The renovator, however, provided a service in renovating the elevator.  Because it did not manufacture any of the installed parts, it could not be held liable for product liability.  (It could, in theory, be held liable for negligence, but the plaintiffs hadn’t proven causation.)


The lesson for injured people is to be sure that when they discuss their cases with their lawyers, to be certain they can explain how their injuries were caused by accidents.  Usually, this isn’t hard; an impact and a doctor’s opinion for a simple accident may be enough.  If the defendant’s negligence or other misconduct may be more complicated, however, they should be prepared to have their lawyers consult experts, and for the lawyers to be ready to confirm that the wrongdoing can be connected to the accident and the injury.


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