From the desk of Bill P. Taaffe:
In Oregon, to prove negligence, a plaintiff must show the harm he or she suffered was foreseeable. How one characterizes the harm—i.e., “a head injury” versus just “an injury”—clearly has a significant impact on what can be considered foreseeable. This case asks the question: Can a head injury, caused by walking into a cabinet, be a foreseeable result of the cabinet’s original installation at knee level?
Here, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that a proper foreseeability analysis requires harm be characterized quite broadly—so broadly that a head injury could indeed be considered a foreseeable result of the defendant’s installation of the cabinet at knee height.
Jennewein v. McImetro Access Transmission Servs., LLC, 308 Or App 396 (January 6, 2021)
This case involved a plaintiff who was injured when she walked into a utility cabinet located in a hallway at her workplace. When the plaintiff ran into the cabinet, it was located about five to six feet above the ground—right at head height. The defendant had originally installed the cabinet at knee level, about one to two feet off the floor despite a work order that specified that the cabinet was to be installed nine feet above the floor. After installation, another company moved the cabinet to where it was located when the plaintiff ran into it. The defendant was not aware of the cabinet’s change in location.
As a result of walking into the cabinet, the plaintiff suffered a head injury. The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging the company was negligent in installing the cabinet where people walk, around a corner, where it might come in contact with a person’s head, and for failing to install barriers. The defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that the harm suffered by the plaintiff, a head injury, was not a foreseeable result of the cabinet’s installation at knee level. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion and the plaintiff appealed.
The Oregon Court of Appeals determined that this case had two issues that needed to be addressed: causation and foreseeability. As for causation, in Oregon, this analysis hinges on if the defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries. In other words, did the defendant’s conduct play a role in bringing about the injuries. Here, the defendant argued that its installation of the cabinet, at knee height, was not a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries because the original installation, alone, would not have caused the injury. The court disagreed and determined that a reasonable jury could find that how and where the cabinet was originally installed by the defendant played a role in the plaintiff’s injuries, and if not for the negligent installation in the walkway, the cabinet would not have had to been moved to the location where the plaintiff ultimately collided with it.
The Oregon Court of Appeals then turned to the bulk of its analysis, how to properly define foreseeability. The court first noted that ordinarily foreseeability is a case specific and fact intensive issue that should be decided by a jury, not by summary judgment. In Oregon, foreseeability plays a significant role in a negligence case and the limits for liability are usually determined by what is considered foreseeable. If no specific duty or relationship exists, the standard for liability is if the conduct “unreasonably created a foreseeable risk to a protected interest of the kind of harm that befell the plaintiff.”
Whether harm is considered foreseeable is largely dependent on how the harm is conceptualized or categorized. Regarding this, the court stated that to correctly characterize the harm, courts need to look to “the setting for possible injury under plaintiff’s theory of liability.” Notably, Oregon has never required plaintiffs to prove that the defendants conceptualized the specific sequence of events that caused the injury.
In applying this standard to this case, the court determined that most of the plaintiff’s allegations did not contemplate an injury to a specific body part, rather just an injury resulting from colliding with the cabinet. Most of the allegations and evidence put forth by the plaintiff concerned the risk that someone would run into the cabinet because it was installed in a hallway and around a corner, where people often walked. The plaintiff did not solely allege that the defendant’s conduct specifically created the risk of head injury or an injury based on the specific location of the original installation. The court determined that it could be foreseeable that someone would walk into the cabinet based on where it was installed and suffer an injury, the fact that the injury was to the head rather than somewhere else, like the knee, does not matter.
The Big Picture:
This Oregon Court of Appeals decision once again emphasizes Oregon’s broad conception of foreseeability. Additionally, this opinion highlights the court of appeals’ disinclination to allow for foreseeability issues to be decided on summary judgment. Rather if your case hinges on a foreseeability issue, expect for it to be taken up by a jury. Ultimately, the Oregon Court of Appeals decided that there was sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of fact and reversed the trial court’s summary judgment decision, remanding the case for further proceedings.