“Cause” is one of the most complicated aspects of personal injury law. Establishing it is also the key to resolving many cases, but this can be a challenge, as many accidents involved a chain of events with multiple parties. Proximate cause gives us a way to untangle this thread and to assign responsibility to the correct party for damages their actions caused.
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. With proximate cause, you can identify the right cause of damages, even if the responsible party didn’t directly inflict the damages on the victim.
What is proximate cause?
Proximate cause refers to an action in a chain of events that was critical to the final outcome, but which wasn’t directly responsible for the damages. Proximate cause often arises in cases where the action of one party indirectly leads to another party to directly inflict damages on another. Without this action, the damages may have not occurred or would be substantially lessened.
How does the law determine fault?
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.
How is proximate cause determined?
Courts use two tests to determine proximate cause: the “But For” Test and the “Substantial Factor” Test.
Under the “but for” test, a person’s actions are held to be a proximate cause if something would not have happened “but for” them. For example, say that a reckless driver hits a truck that is illegally carrying explosive material, which then detonates and kills nearby bystanders. The reckless driver’s actions would not be the proximate cause for the deaths of the bystanders.
According to the “substantial factor” test, a person’s actions are considered to be a proximate cause if they were a “substantial factor” in ensuing damages. Consider a driver who crashes into a pole due to being under the influence. If another car were to swerve out of his way and into a crowd of pedestrians, the swerve would be the substantial factor in the pedestrian injuries.
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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