Causation is a critical part of any personal injury claim against an at-fault party. See how the law looks at negligence and liability in injury cases.
Personal injury claims happen because of someone’s negligence. That means the at-fault party did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable person would do in the same circumstances.
Negligence includes an element of causation. To prove the other party was negligent, you have to prove their action was the proximate cause, meaning the legal cause of your physical injury.
Whether you submit an insurance claim or file a personal injury lawsuit, the burden is on you (or your personal injury attorney) to prove the at-fault person or business caused your injuries.
Here we unpack what you need to know about the two types of causation in personal injury cases, and how they relate to the at-fault party’s negligence and liability.
Actual or Direct Causes of Injuries
The actual cause, also known as the “direct cause” or “cause in fact,” of an injured person’s damages is usually obvious. You’re sitting in traffic when suddenly you are jolted by a the impact of a red car colliding with the rear-end of your car.
The failure of the red car’s driver to stop in time is the direct cause of the whiplash and concussion you suffer in the crash.
When a person is injured as a direct result of someone’s action, that negligent act is usually the proximate cause of the injury. But not always.
Actual and Proximate Cause May Not Be the Same
The proximate cause might not be the first event that triggered a series of events leading to injuries, and it might not be the last thing that happened before the injury occured.
Car accidents are a good example of a scenario where the direct cause, or “cause in fact,” is not always the proximate cause of the person’s injuries.
Example: Proximate Cause Not the Direct Cause of Accident
Laura was heading home from work when she was violently T-boned at an intersection near her home. Both drivers were severely injured in the collision.
The direct cause of Laura’s injuries was blamed on Mark, who drove his sedan through the red light. The accident investigation revealed that the sedan’s throttle system was defective, causing the car to surge forward out of Mark’s control.
In this case, the proximate cause of Laura’s injuries was the defective car parts in the sedan.
How Proximate Cause Applies to Your Claim
An insurance company will not accept liability, meaning financial responsibility, for your damages until you prove their insured’s negligence was the proximate cause of your injuries.
If your injury claim goes to court, you’re the plaintiff and the other party is the defendant. Your attorney must convince a jury that the defendant’s actions are the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Nailing down the specific cause of injuries isn’t always easy. State personal injury laws provide guidance for establishing proximate cause, using either the “substantial factor” rule or the “but for” rule.
The “Substantial Factor” Rule
Some states have tort law, meaning injury case rules, that include the “substantial factor” test for proximate cause. The rule takes a hard look at whether the other party’s errors were a substantial factor in causing the injury.
A substantial factor is one that contributes significantly to the circumstances leading to the injury.
Generally, a substantial factor is something that’s going on right up until the person gets hurt. A mistake or oversight that only slightly contributes to the circumstances is not a substantial factor and won’t count as a proximate cause.
For example, a man is walking along the sidewalk on a wintry day carrying a very large box that makes it hard for him to see where he is going.
- If the man runs into a pedestrian, causing her to fall and break an arm, the man’s failure to watch where he was going was a negligent action that is the proximate cause of the woman’s injury.
- On the other hand, if the pedestrian stepped into the street to go around the man and breaks her arm from a slip and fall on the icy curb, the man is not the proximate cause of the pedestrian’s injury.
Proximate Cause and 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 Proves Proximate Cause
Every weekday morning, Jack stopped at the convenience store nearest the train station to grab a cup of coffee and a hot breakfast sandwich for his morning commute.
One morning, someone had spilled liquid creamer all over the floor near the store’s coffee station. It was a busy morning, and the clerk didn’t get around to cleaning up the mess.
When Jack walked in an hour later, he slipped and fell on the creamer, slamming his head on the concrete floor. Jack suffered a serious concussion.
The store’s negligence was the proximate cause of Jack’s injury. But for the clerk’s failure to clean up the spilled creamer, Jack would not have fallen.
Proximate cause can also apply to property damage. If Jack’s smartwatch shattered when he fell in the convenience store, he could include the cost of the watch in his claim.
When the Victim Causes Their Injuries
No insurance adjuster will pay the full value of your injury claim if they can find a reason to lay the blame on you.
In Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, the adjuster can use contributory negligence laws to completely deny your claim if you share even one percent of the blame for your injuries.
Fortunately, most states have modified comparative fault rules that allow victims to seek compensation even if they are partly to blame. The person’s compensation can be reduced or denied depending on how much of the blame belongs to them.
Example: Comparative Negligence in a Slip and Fall
During an extended freezing spell, shopping mall employees salted all walkways and parking lots. Some icy patches remained, so they placed “Caution” signs every 30 feet along all walkways.
Sue was in a rush to meet a friend for lunch. She ignored the signs and ran down the walkway in her high heel shoes. She slipped and fell on a patch of ice and broke her leg.
Sue filed a lawsuit against the mall, demanding $10,000 in medical bills, plus another $10,000 for her pain and suffering. Jane argued that the mall’s failure to make the walkway safe was the proximate cause of her injury.
The mall’s attorney argued that Sue’s fall was not caused by the icy walkway, but was her fault for ignoring the caution signs and running in the icy conditions while wearing indoor shoes.
The jury saw evidence showing the mall’s personnel did everything possible to melt the ice and took proper action to protect customers.
The jury found that the mall was 20 percent responsible for Sue’s injuries, and she was 80 percent responsible. Sue received $4,000, representing an 80 percent reduction in her compensation.
You don’t have to settle for the insurance adjuster’s allocation of fault. Discuss the facts of the case with an experienced attorney to make sure you get fair compensation for your medical treatment and other losses. Most personal injury lawyers offer a free consultation to the claimant or their loved ones.
Foreseeable Events and Proximate Cause
Whether an injury claim relies on the substantial factor test or the “But for” rule, the proximate cause of an injury must have been a foreseeable event.
Foreseeable means to be aware of the reasonable possibility that something could happen. In injury claims, it means the at-fault party should have foreseen that their negligence could cause someone to get hurt. In plain talk, the at-fault person should have known better.
If there’s no way to know a certain condition could injure someone, the responsible party can’t be held liable. In the above slip and fall example, if Sue had been injured while climbing over a mound of snow on the mall’s property, management would not be liable. They could not foresee a reasonable person doing it.
Foreseeability is important in showing proximate cause. If an at-fault party should have been able to predict that their action could lead to injuries, then this is usually the proximate cause.
For example, a truck driver could reasonably predict that driving while intoxicated could lead to a motor vehicle accident and injuries. The driver’s negligence would be the proximate cause of the victim’s injuries.
Third Parties and Foreseeability
Proximate cause does not apply to third parties who may be injured in the extended circumstances of an accident.
Consider a variation of the icy sidewalk example: if Sue had been pushing a shopping cart, 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 found to have partially caused 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 Sue.
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