Foreseeability can be difficult to determine, but is necessary to show in the world of torts.

One might suspect that determining whether something is foreseeable is not a difficult task, but sometimes there can be more nuanced decisions arising from strange incidents, even when applying simple legal concepts. This case, Awad v. Forest Realty Management, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No.: A-0870-12, explores just how a court may grapple with an unusual situation invoking long-standing and relatively straightforward law.

The plaintiff, Awad, was a tenant in an apartment complex owned and managed by Forest Realty Management. Shafer, the property manager, who was also a defendant in this litigation, lived in a neighboring apartment complex. Lint accumulation in an electric clothes dryer caused a fire in the basement of Shafer’s apartment building and she summoned the fire department. Awad saw the fire from her own apartment and met Shafer in the street. Awad learned Shafer’s cat was in still in her apartment and Shafer became worried the cat would not be rescued. Awad engaged the firefighters in a discussion and then saw shooting flames coming from Shafer’s window. Awad did an about-face and started to run. While running, Awad tripped on a fire hose and sustaining serious injuries.

Defendants motioned for summary judgment to speedily resolve the legal dispute; the trial court ruled in favor of defendants in this case due to plaintiff’s injuries not being reasonably foreseeable “given that they resulted from her voluntarily leaving her apartment and approaching the firefighters to inquire about the cat.” Plaintiff disputed on appeal that a reasonable jury member could have found that her injuries were proximately caused by defendant’s conduct. The appellate court looked at this case in two steps. The first step was to see whether there was a genuine issue of material fact and the second step was whether the trial judge correctly applied the law.

The court framed the issue as “whether plaintiff’s voluntary acts, leaving her apartment and approaching the firefighters to discuss the cat, amounted to intervening factors such that defendants should be absolved of liability.” As usual, to prove negligence, a plaintiff must establish: “(1) a duty of acre owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) the duty as breached by the defendant; and (3) plaintiff’s injury was proximately caused by defendant’s breach. The court turned its attention to foreseeability to determine whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a particular duty.

“Foreseeability is defined as the ‘risk reasonably within the range of apprehension.’” Clohesy v. Food Circus Supermarkets, 149 N.J. 496, 502-03 (1997) (quoting Hill v. Yaskin, 75 N.J. 139, 144 (1977)). Defendants are considered to have a duty if they are in a position to discover the risk, or would have a reason to know that a particular plaintiff would suffer a particular injury. When determining whether the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause to the plaintiff’s harm, there must be a direct link to show the proximate cause without any kind of large, disturbing, superseding, intervening event that takes over and causes the complained of harm. Not entirely improbable events in the natural and ordinary course of things, coming after the negligent act, will not break the chain of causation. These “intermediate causes” do not bust a liability claim.

When a court embarks to determine whether a plaintiff’s injuries were proximately caused by a defendant’s negligence, the injury sustained by the complaining plaintiff must be reasonably foreseeable without any superseding intervening event that totally breaks the chain of causation. The Appellate Court found that Awad’s injuries were not foreseeable because her “voluntary actions broke the chain of causation” between Forest Realty Management’s negligence and her injuries. Significantly, Awad chose to place her body in harm’s way when she exited her apartment and stood by Shafer to watch the fire.

The Appellate Court explained that even if it was not entirely improbable that a tenant would leave her apartment to watch a fire nearby, the voluntary action of running away was certainly not foreseeable. The appellate court concluded, “It was not foreseeable to defendants that plaintiff would approach the firefighters as they were engaged in their emergency effort near a burning building, and then when she saw flames shooting out of Shafer’s apartment, turn and attempt to run away, only to trip over a fire hose. The injuries suffered by plaintiff were not foreseeable to defendants.”