Proving Cause in Personal Injury Lawsuits

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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In order to have success in a personal injury lawsuit, you must prove that the actions of the defendant were the cause of the harm suffered. In order to satisfy the legal requirement of cause, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s negligent actions were both the actual cause and proximate cause of the injury or damage suffered.  Cause can be fairly difficult to prove because there can be any number of factors that lead to an injury, so consult an experienced attorney for questions about your case.

Actual Cause

Actual cause is often referred to as but-for causation. An analysis of a but-for test might read: “It is likely that injury X would not have occurred but for the actions of person A.” What this means is that person A caused injury X because had person A not acted, then injury X would not have happened.

For example, if Driver A runs a red light and hits Driver B, injuring him, Driver A’s act of running the red light is the likely actual cause of Driver B’s injuries. In other words, Driver B would not have been injured but for Driver A’s running the red light. As it is decided by a fairly general and wide reaching question, actual causation can sometimes be quite broad and draw otherwise unrelated events into the chain of causation.  Because of this, proximate cause – the second type of causation – functions as a limitation.

Proximate Cause

In order for an action to be the proximate cause of an injury, it must be related closely enough through the chain of causation that the act is considered the sufficient cause of the harm.  The most common test for determining if an action is sufficiently related to an injury to satisfy proximate cause is whether or not the injury was foreseeable by the person committing the action. If so, than those actions are the proximate cause of the harm suffered; if not, no proximate cause exists.   

A good illustration of this principle is as follows: A woman is pushing a baby carriage down the street when she witnesses Driver A’s car accident with Driver B (described above). She is so distracted by the accident that she lets go of the carriage momentarily and it runs away from her, striking a pedestrian and causing him to fall, hurting his back. Using only an actual cause analysis, it is likely that Driver A is indeed responsible for the pedestrian’s back injury. This is because but for Driver A’s running the red light, there would not have been an accident in the first place. With no accident to distract the woman, she would not have let go of the carriage and so the pedestrian would never have been struck and never would have fallen. Yet there may not be proximate cause because a pedestrian getting hit by a baby carriage is probably not a foreseeable result of running a red light. Since there is not likely proximate causation, a court is not likely to find Driver A liable for the pedestrian’s back injuries.

Promixate cause has been causing headaches for law students, lawyers, and even judges for years because it is difficult to understand, and does not provide any easy answers.  Two legal experts can look at the same set of facts and come to opposite conclusions about the existence of proximate cause.  This should reiterate the need for an experienced attorney to help you argue that both actual and proximate cause exist in your lawsuit.

Getting Legal Help

The doctrine of proximate cause helps to limit the damage for which a defendant may be held accountable, making him liable only where his actions are both the actual cause of a reasonably foreseeable injury. It can be difficult to determine whether or not proximate cause exists, so contact an experienced personal injury attorney with any questions.

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