In Maryland personal injury lawsuits, a plaintiff typically has to prove causation—that the defendant’s action (or failure to act) caused the accident and the plaintiff’s injuries. While this sounds straightforward, it can be incredibly complicated, especially as many courts consider two different types of causation necessary to win a case: direct and proximate causation. Direct causation is easier to understand—did the defendant’s action lead to the accident, such that but for the defendant’s action, the accident would not have happened? However, direct causation is not enough. Sometimes a defendant does something that directly leads to the accident, but the connection between the two is so disconnected that it is unfair to hold the defendant accountable.
For example, suppose that someone is hit by a car while riding their bike. They are uninjured, but their bike is totaled. Because of this, they have to ride the bus to work, and they slip and fall while exiting the bus hurting themselves. They might want to file a personal injury lawsuit against the driver of the car who originally hit them while they were on their bike, because absent that accident, they would not have been on the bus and then would not have been injured. However, in this case, the driver’s actions would not be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s slip and fall injuries—the events are too separate from each other to hold the motorist responsible.
Recently, a state appellate court considered a slightly harder case on proximate causation. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff bought a cup of hot tea from Starbucks. When the drink was ready, she retrieved it from the store’s pick-up counter. The tea had a lid on it and was “double cupped”—the cup with the tea was placed inside a second empty cup. However, the plaintiff alleges that the cup was very hot, and that there wasn’t a sleeve around the outer cup. When she sat down, she removed the lid on her drink. While seated, she attempted to bend forward and take a sip from the open cup in front of her. While doing so, she tried to push the chair a bit, but it moved more than anticipated and lost her balance, grabbing onto the table and causing the drink to spill onto her thighs, burning her.