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The Role of Foreseeability in a Personal Injury Claim

Sadat Montgomery is a Dallas personal injury attorney who takes pride in getting his clients the compensation and treatment they deserve.

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Even if someone's negligence causes you to suffer an injury, your ability to recover compensation heavily depends upon whether your injuries were a foreseeable result.

In every personal injury case, there are certain standards that must be met in order for the defendant (the person who allegedly caused the injury) to be held responsible. There are four basic elements to these types of cases: duty, breach, causation, and damages.

In other words, to win a personal injury case, your attorney has to prove that the defendant had a duty of care to you and that he or she breached that duty of care. Your attorney must also demonstrate that this breach harmed you, and show that this breach (or violation) was the proximate cause of your injuries.

For example, if a driver was speeding while texting and driving, an attorney can show that (1) the driver had a duty of care to act as a reasonable driver and to follow Texas law, and (2) he or she breached that duty of care by speeding and driving while distracted. If that driver smashed into your vehicle when you were stopped at a red light, causing you to suffer a serious injury, your attorney can show that (3) you were harmed, and (4) the driver’s actions were the direct cause of that harm.

These concepts seem relatively simple — and in many cases, proving these elements of a personal injury case are. Yet real life is not always so straightforward. Demonstrating causation can be tricky, particularly if the negligent party claims that the victim's injuries were unforeseeable. This argument may limit his or her liability, which is why it's so critical to have a skilled attorney advocating on your behalf.

The History of Foreseeability as a Legal Concept

The concept of foreseeability was first established in 1928 by the New York Court of Appeals in the landmark case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. The facts of this case will help most people understand why foreseeability is an important concept in personal injury law.

In Palsgraf, a man was rushing to get onto a train when he dropped a package. Two train workers helped him board the train. As the package (containing fireworks) dropped onto the rails, it exploded. This caused the scales on the other side of the track to fall, injuring a woman, Ms. Palsgraf.

Ms. Palsgraf subsequently filed a lawsuit against the railroad, claiming that the workers who helped the man board the train were negligent. The trial court ruled in her favor, but the Court of Appeals overturned this decision, finding that Ms. Palsgraf's injuries were not a foreseeable consequence of the workers helping the man aboard the train.

Because the relationship between their actions and her injuries were too indirect, Ms. Palsgraf could not establish causation, and her lawsuit was dismissed.

How Foreseeability Is Applied in Modern Cases

Foreseeability is still applied in modern cases, often to determine the proximate cause (i.e., "but for X happening, a person would not have been injured."). In essence, the foreseeability test questions whether a person of ordinary intelligence should have reasonably foreseen the consequences that could result because of his or her conduct.

In many personal injury cases, foreseeability is relatively easy to apply. For example, if a grocery store fails to clean up a spill after being notified about it, and a customer slips and suffers and injury as a result, that is a foreseeable consequence of not cleaning up a spill. The average store manager clearly understands that a spill on the floor can lead to a slip and fall accident.

However, other situations are more complex. Assume that a person has always been healthy — but one day, they suffer a heart attack while driving, and cause a multi-vehicle accident. The heart attack was unforeseeable, because he or she had no warning that a heart attack would occur. But if that same person had suffered a prior heart attack and had been warned that he or she shouldn't drive because they were at risk of an accident, a plaintiffs attorney could argue that the crash was entirely foreseeable.

What are Some Exceptions to the Foreseeability Rule?

As with anything, there are some exceptions to the rule. Most importantly, there is the "eggshell skull" rule. In essence, this means that a defendant takes the victim as they find them. Even if a person is more-susceptible to being injured because of a disability or other infirmity, the defendant is still responsible for 100 percent of their damages. It does not matter if a person's injuries were unforeseeable — they are responsible if the accident itself was foreseeable.

For example, consider a situation where a homeowner's dog gets loose and bites a neighbor. The neighbor has a rare genetic disorder that makes it hard for her wounds to heal. What might have been a minor injury to almost anyone else, requiring just a few stitches, ends up costing tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. The defendant is responsible for these bills because of the eggshell plaintiff rule — he has to take the victim as he finds them.

In addition, while defendants in personal injury cases are generally not responsible for intervening events — like a lighting strike or someone committing assault — they can be held liable for injuries caused by first responders. So if you are in a car accident and the paramedics cause further harm trying to stabilize you, that is considered a foreseeable result of the defendant's negligent actions and they can absolutely be held liable for those injuries as well.

Foreseeability can be a complicated concept to apply in personal injury cases, which is why we want to stress the importance of working with an experienced attorney when bringing any type of personal injury claim.