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Georgia Supreme Court Clarifies Rule on Intervening Acts and Causation – Insurance Coverage Corner Blog Posting by Michael Manfredi

November 8, 2017

Insurance Coverage Corner Blog Posting by Michael Manfredi.

In Georgia, there is no requirement that an intervening act be wrongful or negligent to break the causal chain of a tortfeasor’s act or omission and a plaintiff’s injury.  Rather, the analysis is simply whether the concurrence of an intervening act was reasonably foreseeable by a defendant, or if the intervening act was triggered by the defendant’s conduct.

In Jordan v. Everson, Ben Everson’s mother drove him to the emergency room at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus, Georgia because he was hearing voices and hallucinating.  There, Dr. Brian Jordan diagnosed him with obsessive-compulsive disorder and discharged him.  Before leaving, ER personnel called and set up an appointment for May 1 at a mental health facility near the Medical Center.  However, the Eversons, originally from Durham, North Carolina, had a number of contacts at Duke University Hospital.  Mr. Everson began calling around to see if he could get his son in to see someone at Duke.  He ultimately made an appointment for Ben to see a psychiatrist at Duke on the afternoon of May 1st.  During the drive to North Carolina, Ben unbuckled his seatbelt, jumped out of the moving car, and ran down the highway.  He was hit and killed by a vehicle traveling on the interstate.

Dr. Jordan filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the intervening act of driving Ben to a hospital hours away, rather than taking him to the local facility, broke the causal chain.  The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  In affirming the trial court’s denial of Dr. Jordan’s motion, the Court of Appeals relied on the following line, taken from the opinion in Goldstein, Garber & Salama v. J.B., 300 Ga. 840 (2017), where the Georgia Supreme Court said, “that its negligence is not the proximate cause of the plaintiffs injuries, but that an act of a third-party intervened to cause those injuries, the rule is that an intervening and independent wrongful act of a third person producing the injury, and without which it would not have occurred, should be treated as the proximate cause, insulating and excluding the negligence of the defendant.”

Now, the Georgia Supreme Court took the opportunity to clarify that line.  The Court said that the “Court of Appeals read too much into that sentence.”  It distinguished Goldstein by explaining that it was addressing whether a sexual assault, “an indisputably wrongful act,” intervened to break the chain of causation.  “We did not consider whether an intervening act always must be wrongful….”

And in fact, an intervening act does not always have to be wrongful in order to insulate and exclude the negligence of a defendant.  So, when assessing and evaluating a possible defense based on the acts of third-parties, the analysis should include whether the defendant (1) knew or should have known whether the intervening act would occur, or (2) triggered, or caused, the act to occur.  If the answer to both questions is “no,” then a motion for summary judgment may be appropriate.  To carry the application of this rule further, when analyzing claims, professionals and attorneys should consider whether the acts of a third-party intervened in such a way that the third-party assumed some level of responsibility for the plaintiff’s ultimate injuries.  With Georgia’s broad comparative negligence rule, a defendant’s exposure could be significantly reduced, or eliminated altogether.

The Jordan v. Everson opinion is available at 2017 Ga. LEXIS 884, 2017 WL 4582408 (October 16, 2017).

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