Did blame end with death?

An interesting case on liability and causation was recently decided by the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

On 3 February 2011 pharmacist John Wickersham was involved in a road accident while driving a Ford Escape.  The airbag system was defective and enhanced his injuries.  After enduring severe pain for some months, he committed suicide.  His widow sought compensation from the manufacturer of the car  based on his wrongful death.  Ford argued that the deceased’s suicide was an intervening act that could not have been caused by a defective airbag.

white airbag instruction label
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

After a number of procedural twists and turns (including removing the case to federal court) a jury awarded the widow $4.65 million, albeit with a discount for Mr Wickersham’s contributory negligence.  Ford appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals then asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to determine whether that State’s law recognised an exception to the principle that suicide will break the chain of causation in wrongful death claims.

The Supreme Court responded that it did not recognise such a principle.  Instead, the ‘traditional’ principles of causation applied: that is, the court must first decide whether the suicide was foreseeable as a matter of law.  That is, was it the “natural and probable” consequence of the defendant’s act or omission?  If so, then the jury must determine whether in the facts of the case the suicide was foreseeable and whether the alleged act  was causative: that is, did it cause the deceased  to suffer an involuntary and irresistible urge to end his life.

Wickersham v Ford Motor Co (So. Carolina, 24 July 2019)

Towelie is not a role model

South Park devotees will no doubt remember the character Towelie, a drug-addicted towel with a surprisingly annoying personality.  One of his scenes was essentially a model for a recent case in Texas (and after you’ve watched it, maybe watch a few other cartoons, because today’s casenote is kind of depressing).

On 10-11 April 2016 Karalee Williams made nine visits to a Walmart store in Houston, Texas.  Each time she bought tins of dust removing spray.  She bought at least sixty tins of spray, each time returning to her car in the parking lot to inhale it.  On her second visit to the store she was noticed to have soiled herself and to have vomit in her hair.  On her third visit she was naked from the waist down.  The staff gave her a sundress and otherwise continued to serve her.  On the morning of 12 April 2016 she died of an overdose of Difluoroethane inhaled from the tins.

Karalee Williams
Karalee Williams (Image from Facebook).  Personal injury lawyers – plaintiff and defendant – can get awfully jaded.  Sometimes we forget that real people are at the heart of what we do. Photos remind us that every litigant is a person who ended up somewhere they never wanted to be.

Williams mother sued the store operator and a number of other parties.  Proceedings were commenced in the 11th Harris County District Court.  They were removed to the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas.  The plaintiff, represented by Jeffrey Steidley, relied on a number of grounds to establish negligence.  Several grounds relied on Texan statutes, but one in particular may be of general interest to common lawyers: the plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s employees had assumed (and breached) a duty when they took steps to assist the deceased by providing her with a towel and a sundress.

Walmart (represented by Daw & Ray LLP) sought dismissal of the claim, which was granted.  The plaintiff appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeal was dismissed.  Concerning the allegation of negligence mentioned above, the Court agreed that a duty to use reasonable care could arise where –

  1. A undertakes to perform services necessary for B’s protection
  2. A fails to exercise reasonable care in performing those services; and either –
  3. B relied upon A’s performance, or
  4. A’s performance increased B’s risk of harm.

Here there was  no allegation that Walmart’s staff had caused Williams to rely on them or that they had increased her risk of harm.  As a result no duty of care arose.

Allen v Walmart Stores LLC, 907 F.3d 170 (5th Cir., 2018)

Russian Warfare: Comedy & Death

Douglas Adams has one of his characters say ‘I’ve seen the future. It’s the same as the present, but with better gadgets’. This also applies to breaches of the laws of war.

On 25 May 2018 the representatives of Australia and the Netherlands at the United Nations presented a statement to the representative of the Russian Federation. The statement concerned the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. It noted that

An investigation into the causes of the downing of flight MH17 was carried out by the Dutch Safety Board (DSB)…. The report of the DSB has revealed that the aircraft was shot down with a missile launched from a BUK-installation from the territory of Ukraine in an area that was under the effective control of separatists…. The Joint Investigation Team announced on 24 May 2018 its conclusion that the BUK-installation belonged to the Russian Federation Army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

Based on these facts, Australia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands consider that the Russian Federation, through its role in the downing of flight MH17 on 17 July 2014, has breached several obligations under international law …. That responsibility gives rise to legal consequences for the Russian Federation to …[p]rovide Australia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands full reparation for the injury caused by these internationally wrongful acts.

It remains to be seen whether reparations of any sort will be forthcoming, although under the ‘bearish’ United Russia government one would not be hopeful. That said, a long-ago international case might give room for hope.

278px-United_Russia_Logos.svg
By Source, Fair use,

In the early Twentieth Century Russia and Japan went to war. To bolster its Pacific fleet, the government of Tsar Nicholas II dispatched part of its Baltic fleet around the world. The fleet was commanded by Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, although early on he seems to have relinquished command to the Three Stooges: before the fleet had left European waters – and despite being 20,000 miles from Japan – it had fired on Danish and German fishing boats and merchant vessels from Sweden and France, believing all of them to be Japanese warships, carefully navigated a non-existent minefield, and observed Japanese military balloons (apparently the Three Stooges brought along some hallucinogenic drugs).

Farce turned to tragedy on the night of 21-22 October 1904 when the fleet encountered a group of British trawlers, concluded that they were Japanese torpedo boats and opened fire. One trawler was sunk and four others damaged. Two fishermen were killed and six were wounded (one of whom later died of wounds). Presumably for comic relief, the Russian fleet also concluded that two of its own cruisers were Japanese warships and opened fire on them as well.

An International Commission of Inquiry was established to investigate the incident. Its ruling concluded that

[T]he vessels of the fishing fleet did not commit any hostile act, and the majority of the commissioners being of opinion that there were no torpedo boats either among the trawlers nor anywhere near, the opening of fire by Admiral Rojdestvensky [sic] was not justifiable. … [However] Admiral Rojdestvensky personally did everything he could … to prevent trawlers, recognized as such, from being fired upon by the squadron. … Nevertheless, the majority of the commissioners regret that Admiral Rojdestvensky, in passing the Straits of Dover, did not take care to inform the authorities of the neighboring maritime powers that, as he had been led to open fire near a group of trawlers, these boats, of unknown nationality, stood in need of assistance.

Following this finding, the Russian government paid compensation of £66,000. That sum would have a modern value of £7,629,032.26.

The Dogger Bank Case (Great Britain v. Russia), 2 Am. J. Int’l L. 931 (Int’l Comm’n of Inq., 1905).

Good news for a change

A recent amendment to the Transport Accident Act 1986 (Vic.) has made access to medical expense benefits easier for road accident victims.

Harston

On 13 February 2018 the Compensation Legislation Amendment Act 2018 (Vic.) received royal assent. Section 4 of the Act repealed s.43(1)(b) of the Transport Accident Act 1986. This disposed of the medical expense excess (currently $651.00) which previously had to be paid before the Transport Accident Commission would take on medical expenses when a person was not made a hospital in-patient.

As a result of this amendment, sub-ss. 43(1A), (1B) and (1C) of the Transport Accident Act 1986 became redundant and were also repealed.

This change applies to people injured in accidents occurring on or after 14 February 2018.

In visual form the amendments were as follows –

43 Liability for losses in first five days etc.

(1) The Commission

(a) is not liable to pay compensation under this Part to an earner injured as a result of a transport accident in respect of loss of earnings during the first five days after the accident or after the injury first manifests itself, whichever last occurs, in respect of which, or any part of which, the earner suffers any loss of earnings as a result of, or materially contributed to by, the injury. ; and

(b) subject to subsections (1A), (1B) and (1C), is not liable to pay the first $389 (as varied from time to time in accordance with section 61) of the reasonable costs of medical services received because of an injury as a result of a transport accident.

(1A) The Commission is liable to pay the whole of the reasonable costs of medical services received by a person because of an injury as a result of a transport accident if the person dies as a result of that injury .

(1B) The Commission is liable to pay the whole of the reasonable costs of medical services received by a person after that person has been an in-patient for 1 day because of an injury as a result of a transport accident .

(1C) For the purposes of subsection (1), a claim by a person injured as a result of a transport accident and a claim by any member of the immediate family of that person who is also injured as a result of the same transport accident is to be treated as if it were one claim .

(2) If, by reason of subsection (1)(a), the Commission is not liable to make a payment to an earner in respect of loss of earnings, the Commission may make such a payment if it is satisfied that the earner would suffer acute financial hardship if a payment were not made.

This is a significant improvement to a long standing issue with the Transport Accident Act which from time to time delayed claimants receiving necessary assistance.

Patsuris v Gippsland & Southern Rural Water Corporation (2014) H&FLR 2015-34

Tom Patsuris v Gippsland & Southern Rural Water Corporation (2014) H&FLR 2015-34

Supreme Court of Victoria

15 December 2014

Coram: McDonald J

Appearing for the Appellant: P. Cawthorn QC and B. Miller (instructed by Morrison & Sawers)
Appearing for the Respondent: R. Sadler (instructed by DLA Piper)

Catchwords: Australia – Victoria – water law – administrative law – food production – irrigation – infrastructure – rainfall – flooding – compensation

Facts: The Appellant operated a market garden at Werribee South.  His land was irrigated by a system of channels managed by the Respondent.  The channels funnelled water into a network of drains which directed the water away from the land.  In 2010 a new culvert was installed in one of the drains (and off the appellant’s land) to allow access to the property of a third party.  The respondent mandated the design parameters of the new culvert such that it would cater for a 1 in 50 year rainfall event.

In February 2011 rainfall occurred which was in excess of a 1 in 100 year event.  The appellant’s land was flooded causing significant loss and damage.  The appellant brought proceedings against the respondent under the Water Act 1989 (Vic), §157.  That section relevantly provides that –

(1)     If —

(a)     as a result of intentional or negligent conduct on the part of [a water] Authority in the exercise of a [statutory] function …, a flow of water occurs from its works onto any land; and

(b)     the water causes —

(i)     injury to any other person; or
(ii)     damage to the property (whether real or personal) of any other person; or
(iii)     any other person to suffer economic loss—

the Authority is liable to pay damages to that other person in respect of that injury, damage or loss.

(2)     If it is proved in a proceeding brought under subsection (1) that water has flowed from the works of an Authority onto any land, it must be presumed that the flow occurred as a result of intentional or negligent conduct on the part of the Authority unless the Authority proves on the balance of probabilities that it did not so occur.

(3)     For the purposes of a proceeding brought under subsection (1)—

(a)     a flow of water is to be taken to have occurred as a result of intentional conduct on the part of an Authority if the flow—

(i)     was designed or intended by the Authority; or
(ii)     inevitably and without intervening cause resulted from the exercise of a power by the Authority; and

(b)     in determining whether or not a flow of water occurred as a result of negligent conduct on the part of an Authority, account must be taken of all the circumstances including any omission or failure, in the planning, design, construction, maintenance or operation of the works, to provide reasonable standards of capacity or efficiency or exercise reasonable care or skill having regard to the following matters—

(i)     the state of scientific knowledge and knowledge of local conditions at any relevant time;
(ii)     the nature and situation of the works;
(iii)     the service to be provided by the works;
(iv)     the circumstances and cost of—

(A)     the works; and
(B)     the maintenance and operation of the works; and
(C)     works which it would have been necessary to construct to avoid the occurrence of any relevant injury, damage or loss.

The appellant’s claim was rejected at first instance: Patsuris v Gippsland & Southern Rural Water Corporation (Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal, S.M. Riegler, 14 October 2013, unreported).  The Tribunal found that –

(a) It was not reasonable to require the respondent to have designed its drainage and irrigation systems to cater for a rainfall event of greater than 1 in 100 years.
(b) The appellants land had been flooded because the water runoff could not discharge rapidly enough through two culverts (other than the new culvert, which did not cause the flooding).
(c) The severity of the storm meant that such reverse flow of water as occurred would have taken place regardless of the new culvert.

The appellant appealed to the Supreme Court of Victoria seeking judicial review of the decision.

Held: Dismissing the appeal, that –

1. For the purposes of an application for judicial review, to establish that a finding of fact was not open to a decision maker it must be established that there was no evidence to support the disputed finding.

Myers v Medical Practitioners’ Board of Victoria, 18 VR 48 (Vic., 2007), considered.

2. Under §157 a flow of water is deemed to have occurred as a result of a water corporation’s intentional conduct if the corporation designed or intended the flow or it inevitably and without intervening cause resulted from the corporation’s exercise of power.  However, the fact that a corporation’s conduct in approving the design of a culvert was intentional does not in itself support a conclusion that a flow of water was caused by that conduct: there must still be evidence that the design caused the relevant flooding.

State Rivers & Water Supply Commission v Crea [1980] VR 513 (Vic., 1979), considered.

3. A claim under §157 is a freestanding cause of action.  There is no independent duty of care in accordance with common law principles arising under the tort of negligence*.

South East Water Ltd v Transpacific Cleanaway Pty Ltd, 27 VR 387 (Sup. Ct. Vic., 2010), followed

Judgment

The Court’s judgment is available here.

Note

Quaere whether it is still possible to claim in negligence for harm arising from the flow of water caused by the act of a water authority.

McDuffy v Interstate Distributor Co (2005) H&FLR 2015-6

 

John McDuffy v Interstate Distributor Co (2005) H&FLR 2015-6

Multnomah County Circuit Court (Oregon)

5 October 2005

Coram: Not known

Appearing for the Plaintiff: Michael Ross (of Slater Ross)
Appearing for the Defendant: Alan Lee (of Bullard Law)

Catchwords: Oregon – truck driver – obesity – discrimination – compensation – quantum.

Facts: The plaintiff had worked as a commercial driver since 1987 and had been employed by the defendant since April 2003. He was classed as morbidly obese, being 6 feet tall and weighing 550 pounds (250 kilograms).

In May 2004 he was assigned to a truck which was smaller than usual and in which the steering mechanism could not be adjusted.  He was unable to fit in the cab and reported the problem, after which he was suspended from duty without pay.  In late May he was assigned a larger truck, but then again suspended pending medical clearance for work.  On examination by a doctor it was found that he was able to drive a truck and had only minor other limitations on his capacity to work. Despite this his suspension was not lifted.

The plaintiff brought proceedings against his employer for discrimination.  He tendered in evidence video footage of him performing his work duties.

Held: The jury upheld the plaintiff’s claim and awarded damages of $109,000.00.

Judgment

The outcome was a jury finding and no written reasons are available.  The report prepared based on an account in the Seattle Times of 7 November 2005 and the Oregonian of 6 November 2005.

X v French Republic (2007) H&FLR 2014-56

Dr Eric X v French Republic (2007) H&FLR 2014-56

Court of Cassation (France)

5 June 2007

Coram: Cotte P, Blondet and Farge (conseillers)

Appearing for the Appellant: Didier Le Prado and Jean-Jacques Gatineau
Appearing for the Respondent: Francis Fréchède (Public Prosecutor)

Catchwords: France – criminal law – doctor – surgery – obese patient – pulmonary embolism – death – manslaughter – compensation

Facts: The appellant was a surgeon specialising in plastic and reconstructive surgery.  On 13 January 2000 he performed an abdominoplasty on an obese 56 year old woman patient in order to remove excess skin and fatty tissue.  In the course of the surgery the patient developed a pulmonary embolism which caused her death.

It was found that the danger to the patient had been increased by the appellant’s decision not to delay the procedure pending the patient losing weight by following a dietary regime recommended by an endocrinologist; in the circumstances the surgery performed should have been considered only as a last resort.  It was further found that he had not drawn the attention of the attending anaesthetist to the risk of thromboembolisation and that he had also not drawn those dangers to the patient’s attention.

The defendant was convicted at first instance of homicide involontaire (≈ manslaughter).  The Court of Appeal at Versailles quashed the conviction but declared the defendant liable to pay compensation to the deceased’s heirs pursuant to article 470-1 of the Code du Procedure Pénale*.  The defendant appealed.

Held: Per curiam, dismissing the appeal –

1.  While the doctor’s responsibility relates to the choice of medical means and not to the ultimate result, this principle is displaced where it is established that there has been an error in the carrying out of those means.

2.  While a doctor is obliged to inform their patient of the risks of proposed treatment, the doctor is entitled to adduce a range of evidence (including presumptions) to demonstrate that they have fulfilled that obligation.  It was not open to the Court of Appeal to find that Dr X had failed to fulfil this obligation solely from the absence of a signature by the deceased.

3.  On the available evidence, the Court of Appeal was able to find that Dr X’s errors had directly contributed to the patient’s death and justified it ordering him to make recompense to her heirs.

Judgment

The Court’s judgment is available here.

=========================================

* No copy of the decision can be located.

Kalloponi Comércio de Alimentos v Unidentified Respondent (2010) H&FLR 2014-13

Kalloponi Comércio de Alimentos v Unidentified Respondent (2010) H&FLR 2014-13

Regional Labour Court of Rio Grande do Sul

26 October 2010

Coram: Not reported.

Appearing for the Appellant: Not reported
Appearing for the Respondent: Vilson Natal Arruda Martins

Catchwords: Brazil – workers compensation – McDonald’s – manager obesity – required to consume products – meal break – mystery shoppers – compensation – liability

Facts: The appellant operated a McDonald’s franchise in Brazil. It employed the respondent as manager of one of its restaurants over a twelve year period. It was alleged that over this time his weight increased from around 70 kilograms (154 pounds) to 105 kilograms (231 pounds), by which time he was classed as obese. The respondent alleged that this was caused by the appellant’s policy of using “mystery shoppers” to assess the cleanliness, quality and management of its stores, which resulted in him needing to taste hamburgers, fries, soft drinks and ice cream regularly. He further alleged that, during meal breaks, the appellant’s employees were provided with a meal consisting of a burger, fries and soft drink which could not be exchanged for cash or food stamps. He further asserted that his work required long and irregular hours with inadequate rest breaks.

The respondent sought compensation from the appellant for his obesity. The claim was upheld at first instance and compensation was awarded of R40,000 (Brazilian Reals). The employer appealed.

Held: allowing the appeal in part and rejecting it in part –

1. Although genetic factors and a sedentary lifestyle were possible causes of obesity, this did not relieve the employer of liability.

2. While it was the worker’s responsibility to adopt a healthy diet, the conditions of his employment had forced him to consume the employer’s products.

3. The compensation awarded was properly to be reduced from R48,000.00 to R30,000.00. However, the appellant was required to assist the respondent to cover the costs of medical treatment aimed at weight reduction.

The court appears to have had regard to the fact that master brewers and winemakers are regularly compensated for developing alcoholism as a result of their duties.

It appears dissenting judgments were entered but details are not available.

Judgment

A copy of the Court’s written reasons cannot be located. Details in this report were obtained from the press office of the Court, the website of the firm Barça & Associates, the accounts in the journals Zero Hora and Economia & Negócios, and the blogs Nosso Povo, and Blog da Saúde. Translations by Google.

An appeal was considered but appears not to have been pursued.