The First District Court of Appeal in the State of Florida recently reviewed a trial court’s order denying a manufacturer a directed verdict in a Florida wrongful death claim. According to the court’s opinion, the company manufactured products containing a synthetic marijuana product, commonly known as “spice.” A warning was contained in the product that indicated it was unsafe for consumption by humans. A man purchased the product voluntarily consumed it, subsequently became impaired, and then drove his car into another vehicle. The man was sentenced to prison for his criminal conduct. The decedent’s representatives filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the manufacturer, arguing that the company was liable for their family member’s death.
At trial, the company filed a directed verdict motion and argued that they were not proximately liable for the death because the man’s intoxication was the sole cause of the decedent’s death. The trial court denied the motion, and the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, attributing 65% of the fault to the company and 35% fault to the intoxicated driver. The company appealed the ruling arguing, again, that the impaired man’s criminal conduct was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Proximate cause is a legal theory that imputes liability on a party when their actions set forth a sequence of events that led to an injury. Under Florida law, questions regarding proximate cause are left to the fact-finder; however, in some situations, a judge may address the issue where evidence suggests there is no more than one inference. Moreover, the Florida Supreme Court has found that when an actor’s behavior creates a dangerous situation, the law does not permit a jury to find a proximate cause where an unforeseeable, intervening act is responsible for the injuries. In some cases, plaintiffs may argue that third parties that create a dangerous situation could reasonably foresee that their negligence could set a chain of events in a motion that may result in injuries. However, Florida does not allow a jury to consider proximate cause in cases where the person responsible for the injuries is voluntarily impaired or purposely misuses a product.