Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Superseding Cause Definition:

An intervening act or event which overwhelms a defendant's antecedent negligence and prevents him/her from being liable.

Related Terms: But For, Causation

Also:

  • Superceding Cause; or a
  • Supervening Cause.

An event which intervenes between the negligent act or omission that causes injury to another and which contributes so substantially to the injury as to vacate, replace and overwhelm the original tort-feasor's actions as a contributing force.

Tort law looks to a chain of causation between the act complained of and the alleged damages; a superseding cause breaks that chain and releases the initial tort-feasor from liability for the injuries that he or she may have initiated.

A superseding cause interrupts the but for link between the negligent act or omission, and the injuries.

In Butts v United States, Justice Terry of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals stated a preliminary and essential requirement of the defendant's allegation that there has been a superseding cause:

"A superseding cause is an act of a third person or other force which by its intervention prevents the actor from being liable for harm to another which his antecedent negligence is a substantial factor in bringing about.

"Thus the very definition of superseding cause requires that it be the act of someone or something other than the original actor and victim."

There are many all similar expressions of this principle of personal injury law extant in American jurisprudence. In a footnote to the court;'s opinion in City of Cjicago v the Tugboat Morgan, Justice Williams of the United States Court of Appeals wrote:

"The doctrine of superceding cause is ... applied where the defendant's negligence in fact substantially contributed to the plaintiff's injury, but the injury was actually brought about by a later cause of independent origin that was not foreseeable."

Justice Emilio Garza of the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit in Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America v. Ernst & Young:

"A negligent defendant may be shielded from liability if a superseding cause is found - a superseding cause is an act of a third person or other force which by its intervention prevents the defendant from being liable for harm to another which his antecedent negligence is a substantial factor in bringing about."

Justice Fluentes of the United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit in Thabault v Chait:

"A superseding cause is an event or conduct sufficiently unrelated to or unanticipated by a defendant that warrants termination of liability, irrespective of whether the defendant's negligence was or was not a substantial factor in bringing about the harm."

In Davis v. Dallas County, the Hon. Sidney Fitzwater's contribution, a justice of the United States District Court Dallas, Texas, wrote of the very difficult and often challenging distinction between the contributing cause and the superseding cause:

"A superceding cause is an act or omission of a separate and independent agency that destroys the causal connection between the negligent act or omission of the defendant and the injury complained of, and thereby becomes the immediate cause of such injury.

"A superceding cause is the only means by which the first negligent defendant can break the chain of causation and be relieved of liability.

"The foreseeable negligence of another does not break the chain of causation but the mere fact that a subsequent cause of an injury is unforeseen does not necessarily mean that it constitutes a superceding cause. When a new cause cooperates with the defendant's original negligent act in causing the injury, the original defendant remains a proximate cause of the injury, regardless of whether the new concurring act was foreseeable. Thus, it is no defense that a third person's negligent act intervened to cause the injury to the plaintiff, if the new act cooperates with the still-persisting original negligence of the defendant to bring about the injury."

Finally, this from Justice Neil Wake of the United States District Court (Arizona) in his extremely long opinion in Cecala v Newman, introducing the element of extraordinary:

"An intervening cause is an independent cause that intervenes between defendant's original negligent act or omission and the final result and is necessary in bringing about that result. Not all intervening acts are superseding causes. A superseding cause sufficient to become the proximate cause of the final result and relieve defendant of liability for his original negligence, arises only when an intervening force was unforeseeable and may be described, with the benefit of hindsight, as extraordinary. It would be unfair to hold a defendant liable under such extraordinary circumstances."

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