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$7M verdict tossed for lack of evidence of proximate cause

Nick Hurston//June 12, 2023

Car windshield shattered from accident

$7M verdict tossed for lack of evidence of proximate cause

Nick Hurston//June 12, 2023//

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A $7 million jury verdict was reversed after the Court of Appeals of Virginia found that the passenger in an auto accident didn’t introduce any evidence of proximate causation and therefore failed to establish her prima facie case of negligence.

The jury found the oncoming driver liable for not avoiding the collision. But the plaintiff’s circumstantial evidence didn’t account for four seconds as the car she was riding in turned left across oncoming traffic.

“This case presents the relatively rare instance of there being multiple possible proximate causes of an accident but no evidence upon which a jury could base a finding on the issue of causation,” Judge Glen A. Huff explained.

Judge Robert J. Humphries joined Huff’s unpublished opinion in Furr v. Al-Saray (VLW 023-7-175).

Judge Richard Y. Atlee Jr. dissented.

“I agree that the moments leading up the crash are essential, but do not believe we are left without any evidence as to what occurred in that window,” he wrote.

‘White blur’

Shannon Furr was riding in a car driven by Janaia Spurlock on a four-lane divided highway approaching an intersection in Prince William County. With green lights in each direction, Spurlock waited in the left turn lane to cross oncoming traffic and enter a shopping center.

Approaching from the opposite direction, Tamara Al-Saray had an unobstructed view approximately 300-400 feet in front of her. It was a bright and clear day. Looking straight ahead, Al-Saray saw only a “white blur” before crashing into the side of Spurlock’s car.

Furr sustained significant physical and neurological injuries as a result of the collision. She sued Spurlock and Al-Saray in the Prince William County Circuit Court for joint and several negligence. Five days before trial, Furr nonsuited Spurlock from the case.

Jury verdict

At trial, evidence showed that Al-Saray needed to wear reading glasses when driving and that she wasn’t wearing them on the day of accident. No evidence was presented about Spurlock’s actions leading up to the crash.

Furr introduced portions of Al-Saray’s deposition and called several witnesses. But Furr, Al-Saray and Spurlock didn’t testify at trial. The only witness present at the scene, Gary Burke, heard — but didn’t see — the collision.

Burke said he approached the intersection in the same lane as Al-Saray when he saw Spurlock waiting to turn across traffic. When he started to turn into the shopping center, Spurlock was creeping forward but hadn’t yet entered the oncoming traffic lanes.

Approximately four seconds later, Burke heard the collision; he didn’t hear horns or brakes. He didn’t see Al-Saray driving behind him or who entered the intersection first after he turned into the shopping center.

When Furr closed her case-in-chief, Al-Saray moved to strike the evidence arguing that Furr hadn’t established a prima facie case of negligence. The trial judge denied her motion and refused to reconsider or dismiss the case at the close of evidence.

The jury found Al-Saray liable for negligence and awarded $7 million to Furr. The trial court refused to set aside the verdict.

Al-Saray appealed.

Proximate cause

“The proximate cause of an event is that act or omission which, in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by an efficient intervening cause, produces the event, and without which that event would not have occurred,” Huff noted.

In conjunction with actual causation, the judge said that “proximate cause” represents a “descriptive phrase for the limits the law has placed upon an actor’s responsibility for his conduct.”

Negligence can’t be “presumed from the mere happening of an accident,” and the plaintiff has the burden to show proximate cause by a preponderance of the evidence, Huff pointed out.

“To satisfy that burden, the plaintiff must ‘show why and how the accident happened, and if that is left to conjecture, guess or random judgment, he cannot recover,’” the judge said.

Absent that, a prima facie case of negligence doesn’t exist, even if the defendant breached a duty.

Huff looked to 1984’s Cooper v. Whiting Oil Co., Inc., in which the Supreme Court of Virginia said that “circumstantial evidence must show more than that the accident resulted from one of two causes, for one of which the defendant is responsible and for the other of which it is not.”

“Otherwise, where the evidence does not provide a basis for differentiating between equally probable causes other than ‘conjecture, guess, or random judgment,’ the jury’s verdict will be impermissibly based on an arbitrary choice not grounded in the evidence and thus contrary to the law,” he wrote.

‘Thin line’

Huff acknowledged that, sometimes, there’s a “thin line” dividing cases where there is enough evidence of causation to establish a prima facie case — which needs a jury resolution — and those where there isn’t.

“Indeed, the Supreme Court has a long history of addressing the distinctions between those two lines of cases,” he wrote. “According to that precedent, the case at hand falls squarely into the second category because appellee presented no evidence that would permit a jury to resolve the question of proximate cause without resorting to speculation.”

Noting the lack of conflicting testimony, the judge said the evidence established, “at best, that the two vehicles collided in the intersection during Spurlock’s attempt to make a left turn across appellant’s lane of travel and that, prior to the crash, appellant had failed to keep a proper lookout because she wasn’t wearing her glasses.”

Here, a finding that Al-Saray was a proximate cause required evidence that the accident wouldn’t have happened but for her failure to keep a proper lookout.

“Such a determination, however, cannot be made without knowing the location, movement, and speed of Spurlock’s vehicle in the four seconds leading up to the crash,” Huff said.

Lacking such information, the evidence created three equally plausible theories of causation.

In the first, Al-Saray was the sole proximate cause of the accident, while she and Spurlock were joint tortfeasors in the second. Al-Saray wasn’t a proximate cause in the third.

“As theorized above, if Spurlock had dashed in front of appellant’s vehicle such that no reasonable person exercising due care and keeping a proper lookout could have avoided the collision, then Spurlock becomes a subsequent intervening cause and bars a finding of negligence against appellant,” Huff wrote. “Thus, the unknown role that Spurlock played in the crash is the crucial missing link in appellee’s evidence, without which the jury’s determination of proximate cause could only have been based on impermissible speculation.”

The court reversed the verdict and entered judgment for Al-Saray.

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