Third Party Negligence Found as New Proximate Cause in a Mesothelioma Claim U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, December 14, 2017

Plaintiff Erik Ross Phillips filed suit against a number of defendants after contracting mesothelioma allegedly caused by occupational exposure to asbestos in brake linings used in a machine at the facilities of his employer. The defendants, among others, included the manufacturers and distributors of the brake linings.

At trial, Phillips pursued a negligent failure-to-warn theory under North Carolina law against both defendants. As a defense, the distributor and manufacturer argued that even if they were negligent, they are not liable because of the intervening negligence of a third party (the employer). Here, they argued where both defendant and a third party are negligent but the third party’s negligence is the sole proximate cause of the injury, the plaintiff cannot recover from the defendant. See generally Boudreau v. Baughman, 368 S.E.2d 849, 860 (N.C. 1988). The jury ultimately found that the defendants were negligent but not liable under the above argument.

Phillips appealed and argued that the jury rendered a legally inconsistent verdict. He explained that the jury can only find that the defendant’s negligence proximately caused the injury, or that an intervening cause was the sole cause, but not both.

The United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, agreed with the defendants. Here, the court looked to the North Carolina Supreme Court who has held that “[i]n order to insulate the negligence of one party, the intervening negligence of another must be such as to break the sequence or causal connection between the negligence of the first party and the injury, so as to exclude the negligence of the first party as one of the proximate causes of the injury. An efficient intervening cause is a new proximate cause. It must be an independent force which entirely supersedes the original action and renders its effect in the chain of causation remote.” Adams v. Mills, 322 S.E.2d 164, 172-73 (N.C. 1984).

Therefore, in accord with North Carolina law, the jury found that a new proximate cause (third-party negligence) overtook the original proximate cause, thereby becoming as a legal matter the sole proximate cause of the injury.

The judgment in favor of defendants was affirmed.

Read the full decision here.


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