Eggshell Skull


Eggshell Skull

The legal maxim that tort defendants must “take their victims as they find them” is sometimes more colorfully referred to as the eggshell skull principle or doctrine (or thin-skull rule). (Not addressed here is the crumbling skull rule of inevitable decline which is used in rebuttal to the egg shell skull rule.) The eggshell skull rule holds a wrongdoer liable for all of the consequences that might result from any negligent activities allegedly causing injury to another, even if the victim incurs an unusually high level of injury due to some pre-existing vulnerability or condition. Below is some research used to prepare a memorandum opposing a jury instruction in a case where the plaintiff’s voluntary methamphetamine intoxication was argued to entitle the plaintiff to an egg shell skull jury instruction.

At the trial in this case, plaintiffs persuaded the court to give an “eggshell skull” instruction, that a tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds him, on the basis of plaintiffs’ decedent’s drugged condition. Plaintiffs’ counsel claimed the instruction was justified because: “Both the [defendant A & B] policies and procedures deal with receiving somebody in a drug intoxication as both a medical and/or a psychiatric condition and their entire policies and procedures are set to recognize and deal with the person that comes in in that sort of condition.” Trial Transcript. In his closing counsel then said: “they had to take him in that condition and they had to treat him rather than [restrain] him.” Trial Transcript. Plaintiff’s counsel was thus able to argue that defendants owed a higher standard of care to plaintiff’s decedent because of his self-induced drug impairment. That was improper.

The “eggshell skull” doctrine is one of damages, not of standard of care or liability. “The ‘eggshell skull’ doctrine requires a defendant to compensate a plaintiff for unforeseeable injuries flowing from some pre-existing physical condition. [The rule goes] to damages and not liability. The rule, as applied to the present case, merely states that if a further unforeseeable injury occurs to a victim with pre-existing condition due to a tortfeasor’s negligence, that tortfeasor will still be liable for the increased damages.” Dahlen v. Gulf Crews, Inc., 281 F.3d 487, 495 (5th Cir. 2002)(emphasis added). Where an injured party is alleging an injury which is an aggravation of a pre-existing condition, caused by the defendant, “[t]he tortfeasor’s duty of care [still] is measured by the ordinary person, but the plaintiff’s injuries may not be” – in such a case the injured party may claim the benefit of the “thin skull” rule” to include in the damage claim the aggravated injury. Vaughn v. Nissan Motor Corp., 77 F.3d 736, 738 (4th Cir. 1996). “A companion principle to the eggshell skull rule . . . is that in calculating damages in an eggshell skull case the trier of fact must make an adjustment for the possibility that the preexisting condition would have resulted in harm to the plaintiff even if there had been no tort.” Stoleson v. United States, 708 F.2d 1217, 1223 (7th Cir. 1983).

Thus, if a plaintiff claims a prior back condition is made worse by a defendant’s tortious conduct, the plaintiff may include in the damages the aggravation of the pre-existing injury. The defendant does not owe that plaintiff any greater or different duty, however. The “eggshell” rule is one “allowing a plaintiff to recover for any aggravation of a preexisting condition caused by a negligent defendant.” City of Scottsdale v. Kokaska, 17 Ariz. App. 120, 128, 495 P.2d 1327, 1335 (1972). “The defendant of course is liable only for the extent to which the defendant’s conduct has resulted in an aggravation of the pre-existing condition, and not for the condition as it was; but as to the aggravation, foreseeability is not a factor.” Gibson v. County of Washoe, 290 F.3d 1175, 1193 (9th Cir. 2002)(quoting W. Keeton et al., Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts § 43). “This rule is merely another way of stating the general rule that although the defendant is not liable for any physical condition that the plaintiff had prior to the defendant’s act of negligence, he is liable for the exaggeration of that physical problem which is caused by his negligence, even if the exaggerated consequence was not foreseeable.” Munn v. Algee, 730 F. Supp. 21, 29 (N.D. Miss. 1990).

In this case, plaintiffs’ counsel improperly applied the “eggshell” rule to plaintiffs’ decedent’s own voluntary methamphetamine intoxication. “Voluntary intoxication, of whatever degree, constitutes no defense to the commission of a crime. A man who voluntarily puts himself into a position to have no control over his actions, must be held to intend the consequences. The safety of the community requires this rule.” People v. Janiga, 69 Mich. App. 237, 239-40, 244 N.W.2d 428, 430 (1976). The decedent’s voluntary methamphetamine intoxication similarly did not entitle plaintiffs to an “eggshell skull” instruction. The decedent did not become more intoxicated because of any tortious acts of any defendants. “This [eggshell skull] argument fails because ‘even though it is true that one who injures another takes him as he is, nevertheless the plaintiff may not recover damages for any pre-existing condition or disability she may have had which did not result from any fault of the defendant.’ “ Turner v. General Adjustment Bureau, Inc., 832 P.2d 62, 69-70 (Utah Ct. App. 1992)(citation omitted).

The voluntary methamphetamine intoxication of plaintiffs’ decedent was itself neither an injury nor a pre-existing physical condition for which any act of defendants caused an aggravation of injury. There were no damages at issue for which the rule could have applied. It was error to have instructed the jury on the “eggshell skull” rule and defendants were prejudiced by the false perception that they had a heightened duty or greater liability because of the self-inflicted condition.

Daryl Manhart is an attorney with Burch & Cracchiolo, P.A. in Phoenix, Arizona.

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