Woodland Hills Personal Injury Lawyer, Barry P. Goldberg, is careful in every case to establish each of the elements of a personal injury cause of action which too many lawyers take for granted. More often, defendants are moving for summary judgment to negate a case on the grounds that the plaintiff cannot establish “Causation” as a matter of law. Careful attention must be given early on in a case to make the necessary “connection” between the wrongful act and the actual injury to the plaintiff.
To prevail on common causes of action at trial, a plaintiff is required to establish the element of legal causation. “[U]nder either a negligence or a strict liability theory of products liability, to recover from a manufacturer, a plaintiff must prove that a defect caused injury.” (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 479.) “Liability must be predicated upon a showing that a defect in the product was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury.” (Thomas v. Lusk (1994) 27 Cal.App.4th 1709, 1716, fn. 3.)
Years of case law clarifies the type of causation required. “A manufacturer is liable only when a defect in its product was a legal cause of injury. [Citation.] A tort is a legal cause of injury only when it is a substantial factor in producing the injury.” (Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, 572.)
Consistent with this principle, in any type of tort action a plaintiff establishes causation only if it can show that it is more likely than not that the alleged tortious conduct caused the injury. Specifically, to establish causation in fact, ” ‘[t]he plaintiff must introduce evidence which affords a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it is more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a cause in fact of the result. A mere possibility of such causation is not enough; and when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant.’ ” (Ortega v. Kmart Corp. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 1200, 1205-1206, italics added.)
Because the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the alleged tortious conduct caused the injuries, “[a] plaintiff cannot recover damages based upon speculation or even a mere possibility that the wrongful conduct of the defendant caused the harm.” (Williams v. Wraxall (1995) 33 Cal.App.4th 120, 133, italics added.) “[E]vidence of causation ‘must rise to the level of a reasonable probability based upon competent testimony. [Citations.] “A possible cause only becomes ‘probable’ when, in the absence of other reasonable causal explanations, it becomes more likely than not that the injury was a result of its action.” [Citation.] The defendant’s conduct is not the cause in fact of harm “‘where the evidence indicates that there is less than a probability, i.e., a 50‑50 possibility or a mere chance,’ ” that the harm would have ensued.’ ” (Bowman v. Wyatt (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 286, 312.)
“Where there is evidence that the harm could have occurred even in the absence of the defendant’s negligence, ‘proof of causation cannot be based on mere speculation, conjecture and inferences drawn from other inferences to reach a conclusion unsupported by any real evidence.’ ” (Padilla v. Rodas (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 742, 752.)
Although “[t]he plaintiff. . . ‘need not prove causation with absolute certainty [,]’ ” it must at least ” ‘ ”‘introduce evidence which affords a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it is more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a cause in fact of the result.’ ”‘“(Garbell v. Conejo Hardwoods, Inc. (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 1563, 1569.) “‘[P]roof that raises mere speculation, suspicion, surmise, guess or conjecture is not enough to sustain [the plaintiff’s] burden’ of persuasion.” (Izell v. Union Carbide Corporation (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 962, 969.)
Although there is no question that a plaintiff may establish causation by relying solely on circumstantial evidence, a plaintiff attempting to do so must still satisfy the standards set forth above. “In deciding whether a plaintiff has met her burden of proof, [the Court will] consider both direct and circumstantial evidence, and all reasonable inferences to be drawn from both kinds of evidence, giving full consideration to the negative and affirmative inferences to be drawn from all of the evidence, including that which has been produced by the defendant. . . . [¶] [The Court] will not, however, draw inferences from thin air. Where. . . the plaintiff seeks to prove an essential element of her case by circumstantial evidence, she cannot recover merely by showing that the inferences she draws from those circumstances are consistent with her theory. Instead, she must show that the inferences favorable to her are more reasonable or probable than those against her.” (Leslie G. v. Perry & Associates (1996) 43 Cal.App.4th 472, 483, citations omitted.)
In a recent unreported decision, a tow bar was left on the freeway and was jettisoned into a windshield causing serious injuries. The plaintiff provided expert testimony that a defect in the latch mechanism probably accounted for it being left on the freeway. However, the Court concluded in a summary judgment that because the Plaintiff was unable to identify any admissible evidence that would allow a jury to reach a reasonable inference that the tow bar most probably came to be located on the freeway after disengaging from a receiver hitch, or due to any other failure of the tow hitch assembly, Plaintiff failed to meet her burden of showing that a triable issue of material fact existed on the element of causation for her causes of action.
This example provides an excellent lesson in the legal standards for causation—“[a] plaintiff cannot recover damages based upon speculation or even a mere possibility that the wrongful conduct of the defendant caused the harm.” (Williams v. Wraxall (1995) 33 Cal.App.4th 120, 133, italics added.)