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Benn v. Thomas

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The trial court refused to instruct the jury on the eggshell plaintiff rule after Benn (Plaintiff), who had a history of heart disease, was a passenger in a van rear-ended by Thomas (Defendant) and died.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A defendant’s act that compounds a plaintiff’s existing latent condition creates liability for the full extent of the injury.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff, who had a history of coronary disease, was the passenger in a van rear-ended by Defendant. Several days after the accident, Plaintiff died. At trial, a medical expert testified that the accident had compounded Plaintiff’s existing problems and caused his death. The trial court denied Plaintiff’s request to instruct the jury on the eggshell plaintiff rule, requiring a defendant to take a plaintiff as he finds him. The jury found that the accident was not the cause of Plaintiff’s death. The court of appeals reversed and remanded over the inadequate jury instructions. The state Supreme Court granted review.

    Issue.

    When a defendant’s act compounds a plaintiff’s existing latent condition, is he liable for the full extent of the injury?

    Held.

    (McGiverin, C.J.) Yes. A defendant’s act that compounds a plaintiff’s existing latent condition creates liability for the full extent of the injury. The eggshell plaintiff rule imposes liability for the entire injury caused by Defendant’s injurious action, not just for the injury Defendant could foresee from his action. The jury should have been instructed on this rule. The court of appeals decision is affirmed, the district court is reversed, and the case remanded.

    Discussion.

    The court determined that the eggshell plaintiff instruction was a central principle of tort liability and that to omit it was error. While Defendant claimed that the instruction related only to damages, the court found that it applied to the element of proximate cause as well.


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