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Stubbs v. City of Rochester

Citation. Stubbs v. Rochester, 124 N.E. 137, 226 N.Y. 516, 5 A.L.R. 1396 (N.Y. 1919)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Stubbs (Plaintiff) sued the City of Rochester (Defendant) for negligently infecting the water in the area where he worked, causing him to contract typhoid fever. Defendant claimed that Plaintiff could have contracted the disease from other sources.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The fact that a plaintiff’s condition could have been caused by other possible sources does not require the plaintiff to prove that those factors were not the cause in  order to sustain a negligence action.


Plaintiff lived and worked in Rochester. Defendant supplied water, providing water from its Hemlock system for drinking and water from its Holly system for firefighting. In September of 1910, Plaintiff contracted typhoid fever and sued Defendant for damages, alleging that the Hemlock and Holly water systems had been negligently permitted to intermingle near the Brown Street Bridge, a block from the factory where he worked. Plaintiff offered highly persuasive evidence that typhoid fever cases near the Bridge had increased dramatically during the end of 1910 and that contaminated water had caused his own illness. Defendant provided evidence that typhoid fever can also be caused by fertilized foods, contact with infected individuals, shelf fish, house flies, and impure ice. The trial judge granted Defendant’s motion for a nonsuit, finding that Plaintiff had failed to prove that his illness did not come from one of these other sources. The court of appeals affirmed, and Plaintiff again appealed, arguing that he did not have the burden to prove that his illness was not caused by any other source.


Must a plaintiff prove that his condition was not caused by other possible sources in order to prove that the defendant’s negligence was the cause?


(Hogan, J.) No. The fact that a plaintiff’s condition could have been caused by other possible sources does not require the plaintiff to prove that those factors were not the cause in  order to sustain a negligence action. The evidence at trial proved that Plaintiff did contract typhoid fever, that he worked a block from the Brown Street Bridge, that residents of the neighborhood thought their water seemed contaminated in the summer of 1910, and that the Defendant’s health officer conceded that tests conducted on the water showed contamination. Defendant’s health officer opined that Plaintiff’s typhoid fever was caused by contaminated water. Two other doctors testified to the same conclusion. Typhoid fever was unusually prevalent in Rochester at the end of 1910, and a disproportionate number were in the region near the Bridge. The parties stipulated that more than fifty witnesses would testify to drinking water in the area near the Bridge and contracting typhoid fever. Given these facts, it would be entirely unreasonable to require Plaintiff to prove that his disease was not caused by any of the other possible causes of typhoid fever, especially since all causes are not even known. To apply Defendant’s approach, Plaintiff would be required to find all individuals with whom he rode the streetcar to and from work during the period that his disease was in the incubation phase and prove them to be free from typhoid fever. Such a burden is absurd. Plaintiff has presented persuasive evidence that his typhoid fever came as a result of Defendant’s negligence. The courts below erred in holding that Plaintiff was required to disprove all other possible causes. Reversed and remanded for a new trial.


All torts contain an element requiring the plaintiff to prove that some act or omission of the defendant was the cause in fact of the harm suffered by the plaintiff. Normally, the plaintiff is not required to disprove all other potential causes of the harm, although the inability to disprove a likely cause of the harm would reduce the persuasiveness of his claim. Some occurrences have an infinite number of potential causes and it would be unreasonable to require a plaintiff in all cases to establish conclusively that none of the alternate sources could have caused his condition.

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