“Cause” is one of the most complicated aspects of personal injury law. It’s also the key to many cases. When you have a personal injury claim against another party, what you’re essentially saying is, “I was injured because of what you did (or didn’t do).” It’s this “because” that has to be proved to win your case.
The law uses two main types of cause to determine who’s at fault:
- The cause in fact
- The proximate cause
The cause in fact is easy to understand, because it just refers to the specific action that caused the injury. For example, if a man runs a stop sign and then hits someone who was driving legally through the intersection, running the stop sign was what caused it to happen.
The proximate cause asks a different question. Could the person who did the action have foreseen that it might to an injury? In the case of the stop sign, the answer is yes: the entire reason stop signs exist is to keep intersections safe, and the man should have known that running a stop sign could lead to an accident.
In order for you to have a claim against someone, your lawyer has to prove that something they did/didn’t do was both the cause in fact and the proximate cause of your injury.
Why does proximate cause matter?
Proximate cause often serves to limit the types of cases that can come forward, so that people cannot make ridiculous or outlandish claims about who caused their injury.
To see how this works, let’s use the stop sign example again. What if the man ran the stop sign because he was rushing to work? What if his boss had told him he’d be fired if he was ever late again?
Now, the accident probably would never have happened if the boss hadn’t made this threat. So is the boss to blame for the accident?
The answer is no, of course. We can all see that even though the boss told the man to be on time, it was the man’s own actions that actually caused the accident. The boss had no way of knowing the man would drive recklessly, but the man certainly knew that running a stop sign is dangerous. This is why proximate cause matters.
Proximate cause is just a formal way of saying something we all know through common sense: you should blame the child who stole from the cookie jar, not the baker who baked the cookies.
What types of personal injury cases use proximate cause?
All personal injury cases have to prove cause, and proximate cause is always part of that requirement. In some cases cause is obvious, like the stop sign case above. In other cases it’s much more subtle. For example: if a child jumps a fence around a ride at an amusement park, and ends up getting hurt by the ride, who is at fault: the child, or the amusement part? The answer will depend on a lot of factors.
Cases where proximate cause is especially important include:
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