A couple of recent cases from Tennessee's Court of Appeals illustrate the role of foreseeability--whether an accident or injury was "reasonably foreseeable"--in tort cases and how the absence of reasonable foreseeability can be fatal to the case.
In Singletary v. Gatlinburlier, Inc., 2016 WL 164475 (Tenn.Ct.App. 4/25/16), a visitor fainted in a retail store in Gatlinburg and fell into an antique glass display case. The case shattered, piercing her chest and causing her death. While the plaintiff advanced several arguments to attempt to prove that the store should have reasonably foreseen the probability of such an accident, the plaintiff was ultimately unsuccessful. The plaintiff argued, for example, that the fact that the display case was not made of shatterproof glass placed the store on notice of the probability of such an event. The store produced evidence that the case had withstood several blows over the years and that no prior similar accident had ever occurred. Because the accident was not a "reasonable foreseeable probability," there was no legal duty, and dismissal was appropriate.
The concept of foreseeability not only relates to legal duty, but also to proximate cause. Both legal duty and proximate cause, as well as other elements (see the final sentence of this post below), must be present in a negligence action for the case to succeed. In Crutchfield v. State, 2016 WL 1601309 (Tenn.Ct.App. 4/18/16) a hearing-impaired student staying in a dormitory at a state university sued for an increase in her hearing impairment when a supplemental alarm system placed in the room due to her hearing impairment went off. The student alleged, and proved, that the supplemental alarm system actually caused additional hearing loss. However, that was not the end of the story.
In addition to showing that the supplemental alarm system actually caused additional hearing loss, the student was also required to show that this was a reasonably foreseeable probability in order to hold the university liable. The court explained that while cause in fact refers to the relationship between a defendant's conduct and the injury suffered, "proximate cause" is a separate requirement and is based on foreseeability. Proximate cause places a limit on the "causal chain" when a cause of injury is not a reasonably foreseeable probability (as opposed to a mere possibility). Part of the evidence relied on by the court to find that the additional hearing loss was not reasonably foreseeable was the fact that the university was in compliance with the National Fire Protection Association's codes regarding fire alarms, as well as the fact that the decibel level in the student's room was preset and could not be altered by the university. The court also noted that the student did not inform the university that she was particularly susceptible to loud noises.
These cases illustrate how the idea of reasonable foreseeability is used and viewed by the courts, both in the context of legal duty and proximate cause, to deal with various factual situations that come before those courts in tort cases. A plaintiff injured on someone else's premises must do more than simply prove that an accident occurred and that injuries were suffered. The plaintiff must go further and prove each of the five required elements of a negligence action: (1) the existence of a legal duty, (2) the breach of that duty by the defendant, (3) cause in fact, (4) proximate cause, and (5) injuries/damages.