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Medcalf v. Washington Heights Condo. Ass’n

    Brief Fact Summary. Washington Height Condominium Association and a management company (Defendants) appealed a judgment for plaintiff, by the Superior Court in the Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk (Connecticut), on grounds that the court should have entered judgment for Defendants on Plaintiff’s negligence claim as a matter of law.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The term proximate cause, includes both cause in fact and foreseeability components. The harm that occurred to plaintiff must be of the “same general nature as the foreseeable risk created by the defendant’s negligence.” This means that:
    Liability must be rejected unless a reasonable person would have reasonably foreseen and avoided harm of the same general kind actually suffered by the plaintiff; or
    The defendant who negligently creates a risk to the plaintiff is subject to liability when that risk or a similar one results in harm, but not when some entirely different risk eventuates in entirely different harm.

    Facts. Plaintiff became the victim of a violent assault as she waited in the lobby of Defendants’ apartment building. Her hosts struggled to admit her by using an electronic buzzer that did not work, while Plaintiff was assaulted. The jury indicated in interrogatories that the verdict for Plaintiff was based entirely on a finding that Defendants were negligent in failing to maintain the building telephone security intercom communication system to protect Plaintiff and others. The court held that the trial court should have entered judgment for Defendants as a matter of law, because Plaintiff failed to establish an essential element of negligence, proximate cause. The intervening criminal act of the assailant was not within the scope of risk created by Defendants’ lack of maintenance, because the primary reason buildings have buzzer systems is to protect residents, not guests.

    Issue. Did the trial court err in ruling in favor of the Plaintiff?

    Held. Yes. In fact, the Appellate Court of Connecticut reversed and remanded because as a matter of law a jury could not reasonably have found that failure to fix an intercom was the proximate cause of an assault on Plaintiff and resultant injury, so there could be no finding of negligence.

    Discussion. The second component of a negligence action is proximate cause. Proximate cause establishes a reasonable connection between an act or omission of a defendant and the harm suffered by a plaintiff.
    * The Supreme Court of Connecticut has defined proximate cause as an actual cause that is a substantial factor in the resulting harm. The substantial factor test reflects the inquiry fundamental to all proximate cause questions, that, whether the harm which occurred was of the same general nature as the foreseeable risk created by the Defendant’s negligence.
    * Proximate cause is a question of fact to be decided by the trier of fact, but it becomes a question of law when the mind of a fair and reasonable person could reach only one conclusion.
    * The Defendants could not have reasonably foreseen that a malfunctioning intercom system might provide a substantial incentive or inducement for the commission of a violent criminal assault on their property by one stranger upon another.
    * The court found here that, as a matter of law, the jury could not reasonably have found that the assault on the Plaintiff and the resultant injury were within the foreseeable scope of risk created by Defendants’ failure to maintain the intercom system, a critical element for Plaintiff to prevail. Thus, Plaintiff failed to establish the necessary causal relationship.


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