Personal injury accidents occur as a result of someone’s negligence. When another party (person or organization) is negligent and causes injury, the injured party can file a claim for compensation. To have a valid claim, four elements must exist:
- Another party had a duty of care to protect you.
- They breached that duty by not doing something that was legally required.
- You were injured because of this breach.
- The breach was the direct, or proximate cause of your injury.
What is Proximate Cause?
Proximate cause is when an injury occurs as a direct, uninterrupted consequence of a separate specific action. When a person is injured as a direct result of someone’s action, that action is the proximate cause of the injury.
Lawsuits involving questions of proximate cause can be complex, since many accidents have more than one cause. When there’s more than one cause of injury, the case is said to have multiple proximate causes. The injury can therefore be the result of more than one party’s negligence, including the injured person himself.
Exceptions to the Rule
Most states recognize the legal theory of comparative negligence. It occurs when an injured party shares some of the blame for his own injuries.
Courts can divide liability for an accident among several parties. They will assign some responsibility to the party whose negligence primarily caused the accident, and some to the partially-responsible injured party.
Example: Comparative negligence in slip and fall
During an extended freezing spell, employees at a mall salted all walkways and parking lots. Some icy patches remained, so they placed “Caution” signs every 30 feet along all walkways. Customers came and left the mall safely for several days. None fell, as all seemed to observe the signs and made sure they walked carefully.
Jane was in a rush. She ignored the signs and ran down the walkway. She was wearing a new pair of shoes with slick leather soles. She fell on a patch of ice and broke her leg. Jane filed a lawsuit, saying the mall’s failure to make the walkway safe was the proximate cause of her injury.
The mall’s attorney argued that Jane’s fall was not caused by the icy walkway. He showed how the mall’s personnel did everything possible to melt the ice, and took proper action to protect customers. He went on to say Jane’s disregard for the caution signs and running in the icy conditions was the real cause of her injuries.
The mall’s defense attorney was correct. This is a textbook case of comparative negligence, where the injured party’s actions partly caused her injuries. In this case, Jane sued the mall for $10,000 in medical bills, plus another $10,000 for her pain and suffering.
The court found that the mall was 20 percent responsible for the injuries and Jane was 80 percent responsible. The court ordered the mall to pay her $2,000 for her medical bills and $2,000 for pain and suffering. Jane was responsible for the rest.
Contributory negligence states if the injured party is found to be even one percent responsible for her own injuries, she is completely barred from recovering any money. This legal concept is considered outdated, and only five states still use it: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Under contributory negligence, Jane would have been completely barred from receiving even 20 percent compensation. In states that recognize this theory, Jane would have received no money, even if the court found that she was only one percent liable, and the mall 99 percent liable.
The “But for…” Rule
Another way to determine proximate cause is the “But for…” rule. It means that but for the action or omission of a person, the injury would not have occurred.
Example: “But for…” rule
During an extended spell of freezing weather, heavy ice accumulated in a mall’s parking lot and on the walkway, but only the parking lot was de-iced. The property manager thought the large amount of foot traffic on the walkway would be enough to melt the ice. He also neglected to put up any caution signs.
Sue was wearing winter boots, and saw the ice in the parking lot and on the walkway. She was very careful and walked slowly. As she neared the mall entrance, she slipped on a large piece of ice directly in the center of the walkway. She fell and broke her leg.
In this scenario, Sue would not have fallen but for the mall’s failing to clear the ice from the walkway. The omission of the mall’s management was clearly the sole proximate cause of Sue’s injury.
Foreseeable Events and Proximate Cause
Whether a lawsuit relies on the rule of comparative negligence, contributory negligence, or the “But for…” rule, the proximate cause of an injury must have been a foreseeable event.
If there’s no way a reasonable person would be injured by a certain condition, the responsible party can’t be held liable. If Sue had been injured while trying to climb over a mound of snow on the mall’s property, management would not be held liable. They could not foresee a reasonable person doing it.
Laws are not set in stone for personal injury cases. Each set of circumstances is different, and each court decision is unique to the facts before it.
Non-injury Property Losses
Proximate cause can also apply to property damage. If Sue shattered her expensive watch when she fell on the icy walkway, she could include the cost of the watch in her suit.
Wearing a watch is foreseeable, and but for the mall’s failure to clear the icy walkway, her expensive watch would not be destroyed. Therefore, it’s likely a court would find the mall liable for both her injuries and the cost of her watch.
Third Parties and Foreseeability
Proximate cause does not spread to third parties who may be injured in the extended circumstances of an accident. If Sue had been pushing a cart full of items, she might try to hang on to it to keep from falling on the icy walkway. The cart could have slipped out of her grasp and crashed into another person, causing him to fall and be injured.
Although the mall’s failure to clear the walkway was the proximate cause of Sue’s injuries, it was not foreseeable that she would push her cart into another person. It’s unlikely a court would find the mall liable for that third party’s injuries. He might, however, have a valid claim against the injured lady.