After a century of confusing, conflicting and ambiguous precedent, the Appellate Court tried to answer the question of how much evidence of causation is enough to take it out of the realm of speculation and conjecture. In Burton v. Stamford, 115 Conn. App. 47, cert. denied, 293 Conn. 912 (2009), the court held that , absent an evidentiary basis for a finding of a negligent act that more likely than not caused a plaintiff’s injuries, the question of a defendant’s negligence is too conjectural and uncertain to warrant submission to a jury. The facts in Burton were as follows:
- On October 11, 2002, the plaintiff, Godfrey Burton, was driving east on Main Street in Stamford.
- James Grabinski, a Stamford police officer, was driving a Stamford police car west on Main Street. He was responding to a “code two call” on Clinton Avenue. He had his lights and siren activated.
- As Grabinski approached the intersection of Main Street and Clinton Avenue, he saw Burton’s vehicle stopped and facing east in front of a Jamaican restaurant.
- Grabinski turned left in front of Burton’s car, he claimed not to have seen Burton’s car until “it was right in front of him.”
- The vehicles collided nearly head on, in the eastbound lane of travel.
- Burton had no memory of the collision. He was taken to Stamford Hospital where a neurologist diagnosed him with a spinal cord injury between C-3 and C-6, causing cervical myelopathy. He further suffered a traumatic brain injury.
- A civil action was filed. In it the plaintiff alleged that Stamford, pursuant to General Statues § 7-465, negligently caused the accident.
- The trial of this case started in November, 2005.
- Following the close of plaintiff’s case-in-chief, the defendant moved for a directed verdict on the grounds of governmental immunity and evidential insufficiency.
- The trial court granted the defendant’s motion on the basis that the evidence presented was insufficient to establish as a matter or law that Grabinski’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries, citing Winn v. Posades, 281 Conn. 50 (2007).
(Note that, in directing a verdict in the defendant’s favor, the court found that sufficient evidence existed for the jury reasonably to find that Grabinski was negligent in that he failed (1) “[to] keep a reasonable lookout for traffic in the moments prior to the collision” and (2) “to take evasive action to avoid a collision despite actual knowledge that a collision was imminent.” Those findings were not contested by the defendant in this appeal.)
The Appellate Court reviewed the record to determine if there was an evidential basis upon which a jury could have found that the Grabinski’s negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. In considering this question, the court found significant the fact that the plaintiff provided an eyewitness to the collision. Grabinski testified as to his recollections. See Burton v. Stamford, 81-82. Additionally, there were 24 photographs of the accident scene admitted into evidence. Id. The jury also heard testimony for two Stamford police officers who conducted an accident reconstruction. Id., 83.
The Appellate Court reiterated the applicable standard of proof. “The standard is not that the plaintiff must remove from the realm of possibility all other potential causes of the accident; rather, it is that the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the cause on which the plaintiff relies was in fact a proximate cause of the accident.” “It may be conceded that the plaintiff’s evidence did not exclude the [alternate causation] hypothesis…But [he] was not required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant [was the cause]. This being a civil case, it was enough if the evidence induced in the minds of the jurors a reasonable belief that the fact was so….The purpose of the circumstantial evidence was to show that it was more probable that the defendant [was the cause], and to satisfy the jury in view of all the testimony that the defendant probably did it. If it was sufficient for this purpose it was enough.” (Citation omitted.)
“Grabinski’s eyewitness testimony, the testimony of [the two accident reconstructionists], the police accident report and the photographic evidence regarding the vehicles immediately after the collision together was competent evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer that Grabinski failed to maintain a proper lookout and that Grabinski failed to take evasive action to avoid a collision despite actual knowledge that a collision was imminent. Moreover, on that evidence, the jury reasonably could conclude that Grabinski’s negligence more likely than not caused the collision and, by extension, the plaintiff’s injuries.” Therefore, the Appellate Court concluded that the trial court improperly directed a verdict in favor of the defendant.
1.Your best bet of surviving a directed verdict in a case like this is to get an eye witness to testify!