A Federal Court’s Ruling Presents a New Potential for Success on Summary Judgment in Negligence Cases with Causation Issues

Issue July/August 2020 August 2020 By Margaret J. Pastuszak
Civil Litigation Section Review
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Margaret J. Pastuszak

The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently issued a decision that could impact defendants’ strategic approach to summary judgment motions in negligence cases where there is a dearth of evidence on the issue of causation. This decision accentuates the possibility for success of summary judgment motions in negligence cases where there is little or no evidence relating to causation, which, to date, has been typically considered an issue of fact to be evaluated at the time of trial. In this case, Donahue v. Maggiano’s Holding Corp. d/b/a Maggiano’s Little Italy Rest., No. 1:18-CV-10230-DPW, 2020 WL 730832 (D. Mass. Feb. 13, 2020) (Woodlock, J.), the court found that there “was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that Maggiano’s caused” the plaintiff’s injury and that negligence cannot be established “simply because there [was] an accident.” This decision deviates from the general notion that issues concerning causation in negligence cases are questions of fact for a jury, and it establishes a precedent that summary judgment motions may be successful when the evidence proffered by the plaintiff at the summary judgment stage is clearly deficient.

The plaintiff in Donahue was a patron of the defendant’s restaurant in the North End neighborhood of Boston and was injured while exiting the restaurant through its revolving door. The plaintiff was attending a dinner in honor of her 75th birthday and, after proceeding through the revolving door, found herself on the sidewalk outside of the restaurant, unable to explain exactly how she got there.

The plaintiff claimed that the revolving door was defective, and the only evidence she submitted in support of this claim was an expert’s report that included the expert’s finding that the door was properly functioning at the time of his inspection of it. This expert’s report came under fire by the court because the court found there was no relevant or reliable evidence within it to support the contention that the door malfunctioned. Therefore, the court found that, as a matter of law, the plaintiff could not establish that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injury, thus allowing the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Although the key disputes between the parties focused on the mechanics of the plaintiff’s injury as well as the functionality of the revolving door, whether the door was properly functioning at the time of the incident became the decisive issue in this case. The dispute involving the mechanics of the injury revolved around the possibility of a young girl also being in the revolving door, and the contention was that the girl’s pushing the door caused the door to hit the plaintiff, thus ejecting her onto the sidewalk. However, the court’s decision found that, regardless of the mechanics of the injury, the plaintiff was unable to establish that there was a malfunction in the door’s operation, and consequently was unable to prove that such a malfunction was the proximate cause of the incident.

The court’s focus rested on the expert’s report, which conveyed that the door was entirely operational at the time of his inspection 3½ years after the incident, and he purported only that it was “more probable than not” that the door was not properly functioning at the time of the incident. Specifically, the expert’s report opined that if the door was functioning properly and the braking system was properly adjusted to industry standards, then the plaintiff would have been able to overcome and withstand any level of force from the door or from anyone pushing it from behind. This was the expert’s opinion despite there being absolutely no evidence that the door had been fixed or adjusted since the plaintiff’s incident. The court found that the expert’s opinion required the acceptance of “the perverse and speculative proposition that a door that was properly functioning at the only time it was examined, three years after the incident, came into compliance of its own accord after some undocumented period of non-compliance that included the date of the incident.”

This decision reminds practitioners that, at least for this court, experts must be able to concretely establish causation between the defendant and the pertinent incident through relevant and reliable evidence because an expert’s conclusion based only upon the probability of certain facts having occurred is too theoretical to present to a trier of fact. As this plaintiff failed to present any evidence to demonstrate that the defendant was negligent, in effect her argument was that unknown negligence was the cause of her injury, and that was entirely insufficient. Causation must be supported by an identifiable act or omission that goes beyond mere speculation that a defendant’s negligence caused a plaintiff’s injury. This decision presents an opportunity to bring summary judgment motions in negligence cases when the plaintiff has failed to present sufficient evidence of causation by asking the court to substantively address the admissibility of expert testimony prior to trial. This case demonstrates that, under the right circumstances, such a motion can be meritorious. 

Margaret J. Pastuszak is an associate at Hamel, Marcin, Dunn, Reardon & Shea PC and a former assistant district attorney for the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office. Pastuszak is an experienced trial attorney currently representing clients in a variety of complex litigation matters, including claims of general liability, construction, premises liability, product liability and real estate, and assists them with navigating the nuances of the litigation process.