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Proximate Cause in a Texas Wrongful Death Case

city-race-857772-mIn Sinclair v. Estate of Ramirez, the defendant appealed in connection with a verdict entered in favor of a decedent’s estate and his wife in a wrongful death case. The case arose when the decedent finished his welding job and drank 14-18 beers with his coworkers. He and two coworkers went to a nude cabaret, which was 50 miles away, and operated by the defendant. They drank through the evening inside the club. The decedent bought four private dances in a VIP room. At some point, the decedent got aggressive with a dancer. The dancer believed that he intended to rape her and escaped.

The dancer told the defendant. The decedent left the VIP room and asked for a refund. A witness testified that he wanted a refund because he thought he would get more because he paid for dances. The defendant refused to give the refund. The decedent threw a metal box at him. The defendant got a whip from the other side of the bar.

The decedent pushed through some doors, breaking them. To stop him from getting to an area where the defendant stored cash, the defendant ran after him. The decedent charged the defendant, who hit him with the whip. The club DJ pulled the decedent back, and the decedent fell to the floor, stunned. A club patron asked if the defendant wanted the decedent removed. The defendant said yes but later claimed he didn’t tell him to drag the decedent from the club.

Later, the sheriff’s office noted the decedent seemed conscious and held his head from the ground as he was dragged from the club. The decedent’s coworker apologized to the defendant for the decedent’s behavior and went outside. He found the decedent outside and dragged him to the truck. Another coworker helped load the decedent into the backseat. While the coworker was driving the truck, the decedent started vomiting. The coworker dialed 911.

Paramedics tried to revive the decedent, but he died at the hospital. The ER doctor thought he may have aspirated and drowned in vomit. An autopsy found his blood alcohol content was .23-.26, which is three times the legal limit. It also found an enlarged heart and a bruise on his chest, which was consistent with the use of the whip. The medical examiner determined that he died from blunt force head injuries but didn’t determine which injury was fatal.

The decedent’s family filed a survival and wrongful death action against the defendant, claiming negligence, false imprisonment, and gross negligence. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and the second resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff. In the second trial, the jury found that two of the people involved in throwing the decedent out of the club acted in the course and scope of employment with the defendant. The jury didn’t award the decedent any damages for pain and mental anguish, although it found false imprisonment. However it did make awards to the wife and children of the decedent for pecuniary loss, loss of companionship, and their mental anguish. The jury also awarded punitive damages to be divided between the wife and child. Nothing was awarded to the decedent’s estate.

The trial court entered judgment. The jury found the decedent 70% responsible but also found the defendant vicariously liable. The defendant challenged the verdict on the grounds that it was legally insufficient, among other things.

On appeal, the defendant argued there was not enough evidence to show proximate cause. Under the Wrongful Death Statute, a plaintiff needs to prove that whatever negligence is alleged was the proximate cause of the death. A plaintiff needs to also rule out any other plausible cause of a fatal injury.

There are two parts to proximate cause:  actual cause and foreseeability. In order to be an actual cause, the act must be a substantial factor in bringing about the harm, such that without the act, the harm wouldn’t have happened. Foreseeability means a defendant should anticipate any risk created by his negligence. The appellate court ruled that expert testimony was necessary to prove causation in this case. No expert is needed only when the link between the two events is apparent to a casual observer.

The autopsy in this case showed the decedent died from blunt force injuries to the head, but it identified lots of injuries, none of which were specified as a proximate cause of death. The appellate court reversed the judgment of the court because the autopsy report didn’t include evidence about proximate cause, and the plaintiffs had relied on unsupported extrapolations.

If your loved one is killed due to somebody else’s negligence, the experienced San Antonio wrongful death attorneys at Carabin & Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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