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Union Pump Co. v. Allbritton

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff sued Defendant asserting claims for negligence, gross negligence, and strict liability because she slipped and sustained injuries. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed. Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A successful negligence action involves a showing that a defendant’s negligent conduct proximately caused, or was a substantial factor in bringing about, the plaintiff’s harm.

    Facts.

    In 1989, a pump manufactured by Union Pump Company (Defendant) caught fire at Texaco Chemical Company’s (Texaco) facility in Port Arthur, Texas. Sue Allbritton (Plaintiff), a trainee employee of Texaco who had just finished her shift was about to leave the facility when the fire erupted. She and her supervisor, Felipe Subia, Jr., were directed to assist in putting out the fire. After the fire had been extinguished, it was learned that there was an emergency situation with a nitrogen purge valve. Subia was instructed to block the valve. Plaintiff asked to go with Subia to assist and he agreed. To get to the valve, Plaintiff followed Subia on an unsafe route over an aboveground pipe rack, which was about 2 1/2 feet high, instead of going around it. After securing the valve, Subia returned by walking over the pipe rack and Plaintiff followed. Plaintiff slipped off the rack, which was wet due to the water associated with the fire that had just been extinguished, and sustained injuries. Plaintiff sued Defendant asserting claims for negligence, gross negligence, and strict liability. Plaintiff claimed that the defective pump was the proximate cause or producing cause of her injuries. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment and Plaintiff appealed. The court of appeals reversed, finding that Plaintiff raised issues of fact concerning proximate cause or producing cause. Defendant appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

    Issue.

    Whether a successful negligence action involves a showing that a defendant’s negligent conduct proximately caused, or was a substantial factor in bringing about, the plaintiff’s harm.

    Held.

    Yes. The court of appeals’ ruling is reversed. A successful negligence action involves a showing that a defendant’s negligent conduct proximately caused, or was a substantial factor in bringing about, the plaintiff’s harm.

    Discussion.

    For a plaintiff to succeed in a negligence action, she must show that her injuries were proximately caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct. Producing cause is the test used in strict liability actions. The two types of causes differ in that foreseeability is an element of proximate cause, but not producing cause. Proximate cause consists of both “cause in fact” and foreseeability. Cause in fact means that the defendant’s act or omission was a substantial factor in causing a plaintiff’s injuries, which would not have otherwise occurred. A producing cause in strict liability means “an efficient, exciting, or contributing cause, which in a natural sequence, produced injuries or damages complained of, if any.” In both situations, the defendant’s conduct or product must be a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries. At some point, however, a defendant’s conduct may become too remote to constitute legal causation. The Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 431 states: “in order to be a legal cause of another’s harm, it is not enough that the harm would not have occurred had the actor not been negligent…[t]he negligence must also be a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff’s harm.” If, however, a defendant’s conduct does no more than furnish the condition which makes the plaintiff’s injury possible, then legal causation is lacking. Here, the forces generated by the fire due to the pump failure had come to rest when Plaintiff fell off the pipe rack. Consequently, Defendant’s act or omission was not a substantial factor in bringing about Plaintiff’s injuries.


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