From: Richard Peltz-Steele <>
Date: 01/12/2015 14:56:30 UTC
Subject: Re: 'But for' or material contribution? Causation problem involving Zoolander

Admittedly striking wide of the point here, I can't resist an opportunity to talk video teaching tools.

For a short but enjoyable conversation starter on causation, I like the New Yorker "Dress for the Moment" ad from 2009:

Related to causation insofar as it demonstrates foreseeability and the problem of hindsight bias, I also like South Park's Captain Hindsight (mind the language):
(site blocked in some countries)

--though often I use that item to talk about breach and proof in medical malpractice, where hindsight bias is especially problematic.

I appreciate Janet's reference to Sliding Doors (1998), which I have not seen, but now will.  Sometimes when introducing causation in class I use a trailer from The Butterfly Effect (2004).  It provides a starting point to distinguish philosophical causation, scientific causation, and legal causation.  Students also like to discuss Ashton Kutcher, so that's a plus.


Richard J. Peltz-Steele
Professor, UMass Law School
333 Faunce Corner Road
North Dartmouth, Mass. 02747 USA
+1 508-985-1102

From: "Bruce Pardy" <>
To: "Martin Olszynski" <>,
Sent: Monday, November 30, 2015 8:30:33 PM
Subject: RE: 'But for' or material contribution? Causation problem involving Zoolander

Hi Martin and all


First time I’ve seen that particular clip – yikes.  It seems to me that material contribution is applicable here only if one considers the four idiots to be acting independently and not as joint tortfeasors when they participate in their game of spraying each other with gasoline.  But that seems like a joint activity carried out in concert for a common purpose, making them joint tortfeasors.  If so, the but-for test should work fine.  In a negligence action brought by, for example, the owners of the gas station, the defendants would be the four idiots.  The plaintiff would allege two instances of negligence: first, the spraying of gasoline and second, the lighting of the lighter.  The first was done by the four joint tortfeasors.  The second was done independently by one of the four.  Both the spraying of the gasoline and the flame from the lighter were necessary to produce the resulting fire and explosion.  Therefore, but-for should work in both instances: But for the negligent spraying of the gasoline, would the gas station have been destroyed? Answer: no.  Therefore, the negligent acts of the four joint tortfeasors is a cause of the loss.  But for the flame from the lighter, would the gas station have been destroyed? Answer: no.  Therefore, the negligent act of the individual who lit the lighter is a cause of the loss.  Therefore, both the joint tortfeasors together and the individual tortfeasor for his individual act are jointly and severally liable to the plaintiff for the loss.  The proportioning of liability between the defendants is not a matter of concern for the plaintiff and does not affect the causation test to be applied.  If one were to conclude that the spraying of the gasoline was not a joint activity but one undertaken by each of the four individually, then okay, apply a material contribution test – but by playing a negligent game entered into by all together, they look like joint tortfeasors to me.


Would be interested to hear other thoughts.







Bruce Pardy


Faculty of Law

Queen's University

Kingston ON Canada

K7L 3N6

Research on my SSRN page:









From: Martin Olszynski []
Sent: November-30-15 11:40 AM
Subject: 'But for' or material contribution? Causation problem involving Zoolander


Dear all,


At the beginning of this term, a colleague relied on a (in)famous clip from the film Zoolander (the gasoline fight/explosion) to illustrate the basic elements of a negligence action. Having now come to the end of the fall term, some thoughtful students appear to have sensed that they may have found a case for the proper application of the 'material contribution' test for causation as per the SCC's teaching in Clements v Clements (2012). 


I am inclined to agree but couldn't help thinking that we would benefit from canvassing some of you, so I've included the clip below (starting around the 1:10 minute mark):




Martin Olszynski

Assistant Professor

University of Calgary Faculty of Law