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American Trucking Leasing, Inc. v. Thorne Equipment Co.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    After a fire started in Dorothy’s vacant building, the fire spread and damaged the property owned by Joseph. After the fire was extinguished, the city contracted with Thorne to demolish an elevator in Joseph’s building that was damaged from the fire. While demolishing the elevator shaft, a portion of the shaft fell and damaged Plaintiff’s property. Plaintiff sued everyone involved in some way, including Dorothy.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In order to recover damages for negligence, a plaintiff is required to show that a defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm; also, intervening factors must not be present to break the causation.

    Facts.

    After a fire started in a flammable trash pile in a vacant building owned by Dorothy Gross (Defendant), the fire spread across a narrow street and damages the property owned by Joseph Tartaglia (Defendant) and used by JACTCO, Inc. (Defendant). After the fire was extinguished, the City of Philadelphia (Defendant) entered into an agreement with Thorne Equipment (Defendant) in which Thorne agreed to demolish a damaged elevator shaft on Joseph’s property. As Thorne was demolishing the elevator shaft, a portion of the elevator shaft fell and damaged property owned by American Truck Leasing Company (Plaintiff). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed suit against each defendant to recover damages. Plaintiff’s claim against Dorothy was dismissed, however, because Dorothy’s negligence in allowing the flammable trash pile to accumulate was not a substantial factor in causing Plaintiff’s damages. Despite its other claims against the other defendant remaining, Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s dismissal of its negligence claim against Dorothy.

    Issue.

    In order to recover damages for negligence, does a plaintiff have to show that a defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm?

    Held.

    Yes. A plaintiff has to show that a defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm to recover damages for negligence. In addition, intervening factors must not be present to break the causation. In this case, even if Dorothy was negligent in allowing the pile to accumulate on her property, the buildup was too far removed from Plaintiff’s harm in both a factual and a chronological sense. The fire that started on Dorothy’s property was not the cause of Plaintiff’s damages; instead, the demolition of the elevator shaft is the cause. Hence, the demolition by Thorne was the independent and intervening act that broke the causation between Dorothy’s negligence and Plaintiff’s harm. Additionally, Dorothy’s negligence was not active and continuous at the time when Plaintiff incurred damages to its property. As such, Dorothy’s negligence was not a substantial factor in causing Plaintiff’s damages. The trial court’s judgment is affirmed.

    Discussion.

    To determine whether a defendant’s negligence is a substantial factor in causing a plaintiff’s harm, courts may consider the following factors: (1) the amount of other factors as well as the extent these factors contribute to the plaintiff’s harm; (2) whether a defendant’s act created a force or series of forces that are both continuous and active up to the time of the harm; and (3) the lapse of time that does or does not occur.


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