The defendant’s train negligently hit the plaintiff’s wagon, killing his horse and scattering his belongings. His belongings were then stolen by thieves while the plaintiff was in shock, despite the defendant employing two railroad detectives to guard against thieves.
Intervening forces do not excuse a negligent actor of liability if that intervening force should have been foreseen by the defendant.
The defendant’s train collided with the plaintiff’s horse and wagon, killing the horse, destroying the wagon, and all scattering all its contents—blankets, barrels, and cider. While the plaintiff was having a fit over the incident, thieves came along and stole all the plaintiff’s scattered property. The train had two railroad detectives in charge of protecting the defendant’s property from thievery, but they failed to protect the plaintiff and his property as well. There is no question of fact regarding the defendant’s negligence or the plaintiff’s contributory negligence.
Is the defendant liable for the theft of the plaintiff’s contents?
Yes. The theft of the goods was not an intervening force, and the defendant should have foreseen the risk of theft as a consequence of its negligence. The trial court judgement is affirmed.
Judge Garrison disagrees that the accident was the proximate cause of the loss of the plaintiff’s goods to theft. Proximate cause indicates an unbroken cause/effect relationship between the events in question and cannot exist where there has been intervening conduct on the part of another force or actor. Crime in particular cannot be assumed to be foreseeable, as the law does not allow us to presume crime.
The court first recognizes that the thieves were an intervening force that could be viewed as exempting the defendant from liability for the stolen goods. That being said, the court determines that the theft of the goods was foreseeable—the crash occurred in a big city where thievery was common and the driver was in such a state from the accident that he could not protect his belongings—and thus within the scope of proximate cause. Further, the defendant clearly knew the risk of theft, as it hired two detectives to protect against that very risk. The court ultimately deems the conduct of the thieves to be a joint tort rather than an intervening force.