A recent case in the State of Georgia deals with summary judgment and proximate cause. In the case, the plaintiff burned her hand in a kitchen fire. She sued an alarm company for installing an allegedly defective smoke detector alarm system, which she contended failed to alert her soon enough to detect the fire.

The defendant alarm company filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the court. The plaintiff appealed to the appellate court, asserting genuine issues of material fact as to whether the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of her injuries.

In discussing the matter of summary judgment, the appellate court said summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party — in this case the alarm company — can “show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” 

A defendant is entitled to obtain summary judgment “… by showing an absence of evidence supporting at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s claim. The defendant does not need to affirmatively disprove the plaintiff’s case, but may prevail simply by pointing to the lack of evidence. If the defendant does so, the plaintiff cannot rest on his pleadings, but must point to specific evidence that gives rise to a triable issue of fact.” 

In this case, the court pointed out the alarm company installed a security system and smoke monitoring system in the plaintiff’s home. The plaintiff did not talk with the defendant alarm company about any specifics about the system, but hired the company to put systems in to protect her and her children in the house.

The plaintiff testified she received a phone call while in the midst of frying chicken on the stove. After completing her phone call, she returned to the kitchen and turned the chicken pieces over to continue cooking. She then sat on the sofa and “nodded off.” She estimated she was asleep for about three to four minutes when she awoke to the smell of smoke.

Among details of her testimony the plaintiff described pouring flour into the now flaming pan. Then with one hand she made an attempt to turn off the stove but was unable to locate the correct knob through all the thick smoke. With the other hand she simultaneously attempted to cover the pan with a lid. The hand trying to locate the knob was hit with hot grease bubbling out of the pan, causing a severe burn.

Approximately two years later the plaintiff testified that she subsequently had the smoke alarm system evaluated by a different security company, which determined that a card to activate the system was missing.

As mentioned, the plaintiff filed a complaint for personal injuries and damages. The alarm company answered, denied liability and filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court determined there was no genuine issue of material fact as to proximate cause; thus, the alarm company was not liable in negligence for the plaintiff’s injuries as a matter of law.

The court found the plaintiff failed to present any fact to establish the defendant’s negligence as the proximate cause of her injuries. Specifically, the plaintiff failed to show the alarm company should have foreseen the action taken by the plaintiff that resulted in her injuries. The plaintiff was injured neither by the alleged breach of the duty related to the installation, maintenance or operation of the system, nor by its failure to alert her to the grease fire on her stove.

The plaintiff was injured when she voluntarily undertook to extinguish the grease fire by dumping flour in the pan, covering the pan with a lid and then removing the pan from the burner. The plaintiff asserted that had the alarm company properly installed the smoke detector she would have awoken earlier when there was a minimal amount of smoke, giving her time to go to the stove and turn off whatever was burning, which would have kept her hand from getting burned. 

"The court pointed out that even if the alleged failure of the smoke detector could somehow be deemed a cause in fact, the plaintiff cannot establish that it proximately caused her injuries."

She further argued it was foreseeable that she would suffer an injury without a properly functioning smoke detector, and that the defendant’s failure to correctly install the system was the primary factor in causing her injury. The court pointed out that to recover injuries caused by another party’s negligence, a plaintiff must show four elements: A duty, a breach of that duty, causation and damages.

In order to show the defendant’s negligence was the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injuries, the court indicated the plaintiff ordinarily must prove that but for this conduct she would not have sustained the injury. 

“The defendant’s conduct was not a cause of the event, if the event would have occurred without it,” the court invoked. Here the court points out the fire started as a result of the plaintiff leaving frying chicken unattended while she fell asleep. Even assuming for purposes of summary judgment the smoke detector was defectively installed, the plaintiff provided no evidence at her deposition that a working smoke detector would have alerted her any sooner to the fire, much less at a sufficiently early interval to have allowed her to use her bare hand to turn off the stove without danger. 

The court indicated the plaintiff’s testimony in this regard is merely conjecture or speculation, therefore giving the jury no basis on which to render a verdict in her favor. Further, the court pointed out that even if the alleged failure of the smoke detector could somehow be deemed a cause in fact, the plaintiff cannot establish that it proximately caused her injuries. 

Proximate cause is defined as, “That which, in the natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by other causes, produces an event, and without which the event would not have occurred.” 

The court pointed out when the plaintiff became aware of the fire she did not attempt to avoid injury. Instead, she approached the fire and actively increased her risk of harm by exposing her bare skin to the potential of boiling oil. Therefore, the plaintiff’s own decision to put her unprotected hand near a pot of flaming, smoking oil was an intervening factor between any alleged smoke alarm malfunction and her injuries.

Therefore, this case is not one where the injury was the natural and probable consequence of wrongful conduct that should have been foreseen by the defendant, and thus the plaintiff cannot establish the element of proximate cause. Hence, the lower court’s decision granting the motion for summary judgment was affirmed.