California Landmark Cases on Proximate Cause
California Case Law of Proximate Cause:
It is well established that the principles of causation as they apply to tort law are equally applicable to criminal law. (People v. Schmies (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 38, 46-47 51 Cal. Rptr. 2d 185 (Schmies); People v. Roberts, supra, 2 Cal.4th 271, 318-319 relying on tort cases for authority regarding causation in a homicide case.) And as in tort law, the defendant's act must be the proximate cause of the injury, death, or other harm constituting the crime. (Schmies, supra, 44 Cal.App.4th at pp. 46-47; 1 Witkin & Epstein, Cal. Criminal Law (3d ed. 2000) Elements, 35, pp. 241-242; accord, People v. Armitage (1987) 194 Cal.App.3d 405, 419-420 239 Cal. Rptr. 515 "In order to be guilty of felony drunk boating the defendant's act or omission must be the proximate cause of the ensuing injury or death.".)
We thus turn to the law of proximate cause, People v. Brady (2005) 129 Cal.App.4th 1314, involved an appeal by two defendants, Brady and Mortensen, both of whom were convicted of manufacturing, and conspiring to manufacture, methamphetamine. Brady was also convicted of recklessly causing a fire that resulted in the death of two firefighter pilots whose planes collided while they were responding to the fire near the methamphetamine lab. Brady's "primary contention on appeal was that the jury instructions and the exclusion of four categories of evidence precluded the jury from properly determining whether his conduct proximately caused the death of the pilots." (Id. at p. 1318.)
More specifically, Brady argued that "the intervening acts of the pilot Groff and others were superseding causes that absolved him of responsibility for the two deaths." (Id. at p. 1323.) The Court of Appeal rejected these contentions, in a scholarly opinion which began its analysis with an exhaustive exposition of the law of proximate cause:
"'The principles of causation apply to crimes as well as torts. "Just as in tort law, the defendant's act must be the legally responsible cause ('proximate cause') of the injury, death or other harm which constitutes the crime."' So too, California criminal law relies on civil law formulations of concurrent and superseding cause. '"The law defines 'cause' in its own particular way."' A 'cause of death is an act or omission that sets in motion a chain of events that produces as a direct, natural and probable consequence of the act or omission the death and without which the death would not occur.' (CALJIC No. 3.40.)
In People v. Roberts, supra, 2 Cal.4th 271, the Supreme Court emphasized the primary significance of foreseeability to proximate cause. 'The object of the criminal law is to deter the individual from committing acts that injure society by harming others, their property, or the public welfare, and to express society's condemnation of such acts by punishing them. "The purpose of the criminal law is to define socially intolerable conduct, and to hold conduct within ... limits ... reasonably acceptable from the social point of view." "Modern penal law is founded on moral culpability. The law punishes a person for a criminal act only if he is morally responsible for it. To do otherwise would be both inhumane and unenlightened. ..."'
"'In general, "proximate cause is clearly established where the act is directly connected with the resulting injury, with no intervening force operating."' If an intervening act, event or force is present, however, it is necessary to determine whether that act, event or force is sufficient to absolve the defendant of liability 'because the "defendant may also be criminally liable for a result directly caused by his or her act, even though there is another contributing cause."'
"'In law, the term "superseding cause" means "an independent event that intervenes in the chain of causation, producing harm of a kind and degree so far beyond the risk the original wrongdoer should have foreseen that the law deems it unfair to hold him responsible."' ... '"Where an injury was brought about by a later cause of independent origin ... the question of proximate cause revolves around a determination of whether the later cause of independent origin, commonly referred to as an intervening cause, was foreseeable by the defendant or, if not foreseeable, whether it caused injury of a type which was foreseeable. If either of these questions is answered in the affirmative, then the defendant is not relieved from liability towards the plaintiff ... ."' Thus, 'the defendant remains criminally liable if either the possible consequence might reasonably have been contemplated or the defendant should have foreseen the possibility of harm of the kind that could result from his act.' " (Brady, supra, 129 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1324-1326).
Later, the court applied that law to Brady's specific contentions, including his claim that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of the blood-alcohol level of the pilot Groff.
After holding that exclusion of the evidence was not error, the court ended with this: "In any event, Brady's attempt to define Groff's 'intentional misconduct of flying under the influence of alcohol' as a superseding cause of the pilots' deaths is unavailing.
The issue of proximate causation is increasingly being viewed in terms of the scope of the risk created by the wrongdoer's conduct. (See, e.g., 1 Dobbs, The Law of Torts (2001) 186-187, pp. 460-464; .) 'Courts usually reduce the tests of proximate cause, both in direct and in intervening cause cases, to a question of foreseeability. To some extent, the language of foreseeability is a short hand expression intended to say that the scope of the defendant's liability is determined by the scope of the risk he negligently created.' (1 Dobbs, supra, 187, p. 463.)
'... Consequently, the issue in intervening cause cases, like the issue in others, is whether the general type of harm inflicted was foreseeable and thus within the risk of harm created by the defendant's negligent conduct.' (Id. (2004 supp.) 197A, pp. 92-93.) ... This assessment is in full accord with the principles long articulated by California courts.
'"It is enough that the defendant should have foreseen the possibility of some harm of the kind which might result from his act."' (Schmies, supra, 44 Cal.App.4th at p. 50; see also People v. Crew (2003) 31 Cal.4th 822, 847 3 Cal. Rptr. 3d 733, 74 P.3d 820 a 'defendant remains criminally liable if either the possible consequence might reasonably have been contemplated or the defendant should have foreseen the possibility of harm of the kind that could result from his act'.)" (Brady, supra, 129 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1333-1334.)