Who is to blame: the one who steals or the one who is stolen from?
In any negligence claim, foreseeability and responsibility are central issues. Sometimes this is clear cut, sometimes not. One significant question is that of intervening causes, and in the Mississippi Supreme Court case of Mitchell Crane Services v. Page, theft.
On the evening of Sunday, July 25, 1999, two vehicles driven by unconnected people struck large objects that were strewn over the southbound lanes of Interstate 59. These objects turned out to be counterweights used to stabilize cranes at construction sites, and they weighed between one and three-and-one-half tons. There were no fatalities, but some severe injuries resulted from the accidents.
Two days previously, an employee of the crane company had picked up the truck carrying the counterweights from a repair shop. He then drove the truck to the company’s premises, locked the door, and put the keys in a key box in the company offices. On Monday morning, July 26, employees discovered that the truck and weights were missing. The company reported the theft to police, and eventually the connection was made between those weights and the accident on July 25. The truck was found in a hotel parking lot with signs of damage.
The drivers sued the construction company. The drivers’ expert testified at trial that the counterweights had not been properly secured at the time it was in the company’s lot, but admitted that the federal regulations governing transport of the weights only applied when the vehicle was actually on the road. The jury found that the company was 25 percent at fault, while the unknown thief was 75 percent at fault. The company asked that the jury’s verdict be set aside, which the trial court denied.
The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling. The law is clear that where there is an “independent, intervening agency” which causes the plaintiff’s injuries, the plaintiff cannot recover against anyone but that intervening entity. In other words, even if party one’s negligence allowed party two to become involved and ultimately do the act which caused harm, the plaintiff may only recover damages from party two, not from party one. Particularly important to the case discussed above is the precedent that a thief is an intervening cause.
The court had previously addressed this issue as it relates to vehicle thefts specifically. In a 1956 case, the court ruled that even when the car’s owner had left the vehicle unattended with the key in the ignition, the owner bore no responsibility when a thief took the car and proceeded to run a red light at an unsafe speed causing injury to the plaintiff. In a more recent case from 2002, the court re-affirmed this principle, holding that “the thief’s negligent and unlawful driving of the vehicle after the theft constitutes an intervening act which supersedes the liability of the negligent owner of the vehicle.” This means that even where the plaintiff can show the owner was negligent in how he or she stored the vehicle if it is stolen, the thief is solely responsible for any injuries caused by the thief’s actions.
The facts of each case will have a huge effect on the result. In addition, the law can be a difficult field to navigate on your own, particularly if you are also trying to recover from injury. If you have been injured by another’s negligence, you should consult an experienced attorney immediately to ensure that your rights are protected.