The issue of independent intervening cause can cause significant confusion in a personal injury claim. However, in New Mexico at least, what might seem to be an independent intervening cause may not necessarily relieve the initial negligent party from liability.
A helpful place to start is with the New Mexico Jury Instruction 13-306 on Independent intervening cause: “An independent intervening cause interrupts and turns aside a course of events and produces that which was not foreseeable as a result of an earlier act or omission.”
An independent intervening cause interrupts a train of events thereby causing an outcome that was not a foreseeable result of the earlier act or omission. This issue comes up on occasion in serious personal injury and wrongful death cases. Among the most common scenarios involves negligent medical care that leads to additional harm to the already injured plaintiff.
It is often contended wrongly by a defendant or his or her insurance in these situations that there was an independent intervening cause that breaks the chain of causation. They argue this of course to also deny liability. After all, if there is no causation, there is no liability.
Despite the vigor with which insurance companies in particular might argue independent intervening cause in these cases, it simply does not fly in New Mexico. There is in fact case-law directly on point to address this situation.
The issue comes down to foreseeability of harm. For independent intervening causation, the intervening event must be unforeseeable. Certainly, if someone is injured, it is foreseeable that they will require medical attention. And it is equally foreseeable that in obtaining that medical care, they may also fall victim to medical negligence.
It is important to distinguish between foreseeability and certainty. Of course, it is not a certainly that the person will suffer medical negligence. However, it is foreseeable. In fact, one need not look long to find that medical negligence and medical errors are rampant. In a 2010 study from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, it was estimated that as many as 180,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. The study concluded that as 1 in 7 patients suffer injury as a result of medical errors.
So is it foreseeable? Of course, it is foreseeable and in light of those figures it may be even more than foreseeable though not yet quite certain. In fact, the medical treatment may cause far greater harm than the original accident.
Naturally, many (though certainly not all) insurance companies are deaf to such arguments. When they are, quote them the language from our New Mexico Courts in Lujan v. Healthsouth: “When a person causes an injury to another which requires medical treatment, it is foreseeable that the treatment, whether provided properly or negligently, will cause additional harm.” Quoted in Lujan is Dean Keeton who perhaps put it best when he stated, “It would be an undue compliment to the medical profession to say that bad surgery is no part of the risk of a broken leg.”
Those insurance companies prone to stick to their guns are the same companies that will find any reason to deny a claim and when there is no reason, they may make one up or simply just deny it without basis.
Ironically, the insurance company may plead for fairness arguing that you should and must sue the doctor for the harm caused by medical negligence. And though you may very well have a separate medical malpractice claim, the insurance company is still on the hook for its coverage.
If you are faced with a situation like this, it highly advisable to seek the advice of a personal injury attorney. This is particularly necessary here due to the possibility of multiple claims for personal injury and medical malpractice.
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