Plaintiff appealed a jury verdict in the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina in favor of an asbestos product vendor. Plaintiff claimed that the verdict form, which included a series of questions as to each defendant, caused the jury to render a legally inconsistent verdict and requested partial entry of judgment in his favor or a new trial. The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

Facts

Plaintiff Erik Ross Phillips alleged that he contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos-containing brake linings used in a machine at the facilities of his employer, Champion International Paper Company. The brake linings were manufactured by Reddaway Manufacturing Company and sold to International Paper by Pneumo Abex, LLC. Plaintiff filed suit against Abex on a negligent failure to warn theory.

At trial Abex argued that even if it was negligent, the intervening negligence of Plaintiff’s employer was the sole proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injury. Under North Carolina law, where both defendant and a third party are negligent, but the third party’s negligence is the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury, plaintiff cannot recover from the defendant.

The jury was submitted questions on the verdict form asking them first to determine, for each defendant, whether plaintiff’s injury was proximately caused by any negligence of the defendant. If the answer was “Yes,” the jury was next asked whether any negligence on the part of a third party served to be a superseding or intervening cause of the injury suffered by defendant.

The jury found initially that Abex’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury, but next found that the negligence of a third party was a superseding or intervening cause of the injury suffered by plaintiff. Based upon these answers, the Court entered judgment on behalf of Abex, taking the jury’s answers to the verdict form questions to mean that the jury believed that the negligence of a third party was an intervening cause of plaintiff’s injuries which became the sole proximate cause. Plaintiff then appealed.

The Verdict Form Did Not Present an Inconsistent Verdict Under North Carolina Law

On appeal Phillips argued that the jury’s answer to the verdict form questions rendered a legally inconsistent verdict. Because the jury found both that Abex’s negligence was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury in answer to the verdict form first question, and that a third party’s negligence was the cause in the answer to the second, the verdict was inconsistent since both could not legally be the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. The Court disagreed.

The Appellate Court pointed to North Carolina law, indicating that to insulate the negligence of a party, the intervening negligence of a third party must break the sequence or causal connection between the negligence of the first party and the plaintiff’s injury so as to exclude the negligence of the first party as a proximate cause of the injury. “It must be an independent force which entirely supersedes the original action and renders its effect in the chain of causation remote.” The Court noted that, under the state law, although there may be more than one proximate cause, a new and entirely independent source of negligence, breaking the sequence of events between the first source of negligence and the injury, will insulate the first source of negligence from liability.

The District Court treated the intervening negligence of plaintiff’s employer as an affirmative defense – the burden of proof for proving third party negligence belonged to Abex – and ruled that, even if the jury found negligence on the part of Abex, the intervening negligence of plaintiff’s employer would act to relieve Abex of liability. The Court found that the jury was properly instructed on these issues, and, subsequently, the jury’s findings were in accordance with North Carolina law. The second finding by the jury, that the intervening negligence of plaintiff’s employer was the cause of plaintiff’s injury, was a new proximate cause which extinguished the proximate cause finding by the jury against Abex. Accordingly, Phillips’ appeal was denied.

Conclusion

When making determinations regarding whether proximate cause exists, parties will want to consider whether a superseding or intervening cause for a claimant’s injury is a defense to claims. Even where a defendant’s conduct may be a source of negligence, the negligence may not be the proximate cause of the claimed injury.