Komlodi Part 6: “Substantial Factor” vs. “But-For” Charge on Causation

Further Analysis of Scalfidi Charge in Komlodi v. Picciano, WL 2050758 (N.J. 2014)
See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Here, the Court charged the jury on both the “substantial factor” and “but for” instructions on proximate cause. The “but-for” causation charge was given inadvertently by the Court and was done so without objection from either party. A “but-for” charge is appropriate when there is only one potential cause of the harm or injury.

In contrast, the “substantial factor” instruction is given when there are concurrent causes capable of producing the harm or injury. A tortfeasor will be held answerable if its negligent conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the injuries, even where there are other intervening causes which were foreseeable.

Here, there were two potential causes of harm: 1) Dr. Picciano’s alleged negligence by prescribing a known abuser of drugs and alcohol a powerful medication, and 2) the patient’s deliberate ingestion of the medication. A “but-for” causation charge was not appropriate under the circumstances where there were concurrent causes that may be responsible for the harmful result; since there are concurrent causes of potential harm, only the “substantial factor” instruction would have been appropriate.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court reversed the “No Cause” verdict and remanded the matter to the Trial Court for a new trial.

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