Torts Final Essay (and Answer Key)

Test your knowledge of the doctrine, your ability to organize information, and your reasoning skills with my Fall 2018 exam essay.

Part II. Essay

Respond fully in essay form to the question below. 

Dennis Defendant took his sister Beth’s car without her permission to go joyriding for an hour.  During the joyride, Paul Plaintiff, a neighbor, saw Dennis take Beth’s car and wanted to put a stop to it.  Paul jumped, quickly, into the middle of the street, and Dennis, who was driving at a reasonable speed, couldn’t swerve away in time.  Paul was lightly hit, and on his ride to the hospital, the ambulance driver, who was extremely tired that day, crashed into a telephone poll.  Paul’s initial injury cost him $100,000, and the ambulance driver’s telephone poll crash added another $500,000 to Paul’s damages.

Answer Key

Paul sues Dennis for the full $600,000.

  1. Discuss the elements of duty, breach, and causation (both but for and proximate causation).
    1. Dennis has a duty to Paul because he caused him physical harm through his actions, and there is a general duty to avoid causing others physical harm through malfeasance.
    2. Dennis seems to have been driving at a reasonable speed, so that is not the breach. The potential breach would have to be joyriding.
      1. If there is a statute on point against joyriding (a criminal offense – like in Martin v. Herzog), and the statutory purpose doctrine is met, then a court might find negligence per se. The statutory purpose doctrine might not be met because the harm the legislature may have intended to prevent may have been to those whose cars are stolen (the sheep case), but it is also plausible that the legislature was worried about accidents that happen while joyriding – because drivers are usually irresponsible.
      2. Even if the statutory purpose doctrine is not met, joyriding may fall below the standard of care anyway.
    3. But for the joyriding, Paul would not have been hit, and none of his injuries (not the initial accident or the ambulance crash) would have occurred, so factual causation is easily met.
    4. Proximate cause may be more difficult, but will likely go to a jury. Hitting a person while driving may be within the scope of the risk of joyriding, meaning that this type of harm may be foreseeable, but usually that is because a driver may not be driving carefully.
      1. This is similar to the example of a child jumping into the road when a driver is speeding – but for causation is met, but proximate cause might not be met if the accident couldn’t have been avoided through careful driving. The relevant question is whether joyriding increases the risk of people jumping into the road to stop a joyrider.
      2. Paul might be considered an unexpected victim, as in Palsgraf, because the duty that was breached was really to his sister, Beth. The proximate cause line might be sufficiently disputed that this issue will go to a jury.
  • If proximate cause is met, then the medical aggravation of the ambulance crash is foreseeable, even if due to the ambulance driver’s negligence. The ambulance driver’s actions are not an intervening cause that is unforeseeable, like in Doe, because danger invites the rescue.
  1. Discuss the defense or defenses Dennis has to Paul’s lawsuit.
    1. Dennis has the defense of comparative (or contributory, depending on the jurisdiction) negligence.
      1. Paul has a duty to avoid causing himself physical harm.
      2. Jumping into the road is likely a breach of that duty, although reasonable jurors could differ because Paul may have been trying to stop greater damage.
  • His jumping into the road is also a but for cause of his injury.
  1. Getting hit by a car and that sort of injury is within the scope of the risk of jumping into the road – as is the medical aggravation- as those types of harms are reasonably foreseeable.
  2. This is secondary assumption of the risk, because Paul knowingly encountered Dennis’s negligence, but that is now just compared, as in Davenport.
  1. What if Beth’s car is slightly damaged from the initial accident? What is her best chance at winning a lawsuit against Dennis?  How would she likely fare?
    1. Beth’s best chance of winning a lawsuit against Dennis is the intentional tort of trespass to chattels.
      1. This is the intentional (meaning purpose or knowledge) interference with someone else’s use of her property.
      2. Beth will need to prove intent to take dominion in such a way that does not deprive Beth of the entire value of her property like in Thyroff – as a result, a conversation suit is inappropriate. Joyriding is a classic example of trespass to chattels because the intent is only to take the property for a short period.  Beth can receive the damages from the accident because they are the injury that occurred due to the joyriding.