Pennsylvania Proximate Cause

Pennsylvania Proximate Cause

Cleveland Brothers Equipment Co., Inc. (CBEC) filed a contribution claim against Grigoriy N. Vorobey d/b/a GVN Transport flowing from settlement payments made by CBEC to victims of a multi-vehicle accident.Cleveland Brothers Equipment Co., Inc. v. Vorobey, No. 4:19-CV-01708 (M.D.Pa. 2020 Brann, J.)

This matter took place on State Route 15 in Tioga County, Pa. Shortly before the accident at issue, another accident had taken place in the northbound lanes, involving an overturned pickup truck and camper. Thereafter, CBEC, Vorobey, and other vehicles were driving in the opposite direction in the southbound lanes. CBEC came upon four vehicles that were stopped (or slowing down) in the right lane. At the front of the line was Vorobey, followed by Miller, then by Puhlick (with passenger, Whipple), and finally McCollum. CBEC’s driver was preoccupied by a noise emanating from an object in his car and did not turn his attention back to the road in time to stop his car from crashing into Puhlick. A chain reaction followed, causing the deaths of McCollum and Whipple and seriously injuring Puhlick. CBEC’s driver admitted negligence in contributing to the accident. CBEC settled the underlying claims from the accident and brought this action seeking contribution by Vorobey.

CBEC claimed that Vorobey was liable for contribution based on Vorobey’s own negligence. CBEC argued Vorobey was negligent for stopping traffic in the right lane of Route 15. Vorobey moved for summary judgment, suggesting it owed CBEC no duty of care, and that any negligence on its part was not a proximate cause of the car crash.

Vorobey’s argument failed for two reasons. First, the Court determined that every driver owes other drivers a duty of reasonable care in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Second, the Court was not in a position to remove the question of causation from a jury. More specifically, the Court held CBEC’s negligence did not preclude a finding that Vorobey was also negligent. The Court reaffirmed Pennsylvania as a comparative negligence state, which allows juries to apportion liability when more than one party is at fault. 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102.

Under Pennsylvania law, CBEC was obligated to prove factual and proximate causation to sustain a negligence claim against Vorobey. Factual causation is “a de minimis standard ... under which even the most remote and insignificant force may be considered the cause of an occurrence.” General Refractories Company v. First State Insurance Co., 855 F.3d 152, 161 (3d Cir. 2017) (quoting Takach v. B.M. Root Co., 420 A.2d 1084, 1086 (Pa. Super. 1980)). Factual causation requires “proof that the alleged injury would not have occurred but for the negligent conduct of the defendant.” Galullo v. Fed. Exp. Corp., 937 F. Supp. 392, 394-95 (E.D. Pa. 1996) (citing Robertson v. Allied Signal, Inc., 914 F.2d 360, 366 (3d Cir. 1990)). Proximate causation “assumes the presence of cause in fact and serves as a means by which courts are able to place practical limits on liability as a matter of policy,” and requires “the alleged wrongful acts [to be] a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s harm.” Galullo, 937 F. Supp. 392, 394-95.

Vorobey relied on Lux v. Gerald E. Ort Trucking, Inc., 887 A.2d 1281 (Pa. Super. 2005) to support its contention that its conduct was not a substantial factor in causing the car crash. In Lux, two car accidents took place. Lux, an officer responding to the first accident was involved in a second accident when another driver fell asleep and hit his vehicle. Lux sued the parties to both accidents and argued that the negligence of Ort Trucking (which was involved in the first accident) was a substantial factor in causing his injuries during the second accident. The trial court rejected this theory, and the Superior Court properly affirmed. The Superior Court held that the negligence of the driver who caused the first accident was too remote from the conduct that caused the second accident, where Lux was actually injured.

The Court determined the facts in Lux were not applicable to instant case. The Court explained that Lux would apply if CBEC sued the owner of the overturned pickup truck and camper (the “first accident”), but CBEC sued a party involved in the same accident. Here, the Court found Vorobey’s conduct was not nearly as removed from the injury in this case when compared to the facts in Lux.

The Court reviewed Vorobey’s arguments concerning debris on the road and determined that similar to roadways in adverse weather conditions, may create factual issues surrounding the proximate cause of an accident involving rear-end collisions behind the stopped vehicle. Doland v. Berrios, 2014 WL 3809962 at *3 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 1, 2014). Finally, the Court acknowledged that the cases CBEC relied on involved situations where the entire roadway was blocked by stopped cars but determined that this fact should be resolved by the factfinder. “Whether a party’s conduct has been a substantial factor in causing injury to another is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury.” See Vernon v. Stash, 532 A.2d 441, 446 (Pa. Super. 1987) (explaining that causation can be removed from the jury “only where it is so clear that reasonable minds cannot differ on the issue”).