Everything You Need to Know About Proximate Cause in Accident Claims

To get fair compensation, you’ll have to show the other person’s negligence caused your injury. Here’s how the concept of causation works in personal injury claims.

When someone else’s negligence has injured you, you have a right to expect the at-fault party to pay for your injuries and other damages. For most of us, that means dealing with the at-fault party’s insurance company.

If you’ve been injured in a car accident, suffered a slip-and-fall, or were hurt in any other kind of accident, the burden will be on you prove who is to blame for your injury.

“Proximate cause” is the legal term used to describe the specific cause of your injuries.

Here’s where we unpack what you need to know about proximate cause, and how the insurance company will look at all the factors that might have contributed your injury.

What is “Proximate Cause” in Injury Claims?

Personal injury claims happen because of someone’s negligence. That means the at-fault party (person or business) did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances.

To prove the other party was negligent, you or your attorney will have to show:

  1. The other party had a duty of care to avoid harming you
  2. The other party breached their duty of care through negligence
  3. You were injured because of this breach
  4. The other party’s negligence was the proximate cause, meaning “legal cause” of your injury

When a person is injured as a direct result of someone’s action, that action is usually the proximate cause of the injury.

Injury claims can get complicated, especially when there are multiple at-fault parties, or the parties don’t agree on the proximate cause of the injuries.

If you’ve been injured in a complicated accident, talk to a personal injury attorney about protecting your right to compensation.

Direct 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 occurs.

Car accidents are a good example of a scenario where the “cause in fact,” meaning the direct cause, 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.

Defining Proximate Cause in Your Claim

Nailing down the specific cause of your injuries isn’t always easy. Even when you have no doubt in your mind who is to blame for your injuries, you’ll still have to convince the insurance adjuster that their insured is at fault.

There are a couple of methods lawyers use to help prove proximate cause and fault. You can use one of these methods to support your argument about who caused your injuries.

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 Shares Blame

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 comparative negligence 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 determination of blame. You have the right to consult an experienced injury attorney to make sure you get the compensation you deserve.

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 been able to foresee 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 a certain condition would injure a reasonable person, the responsible party can’t be held liable. In the above 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 their action could lead to an accident and injuries, then this is usually the proximate cause.

A truck driver could reasonably predict that driving while intoxicated could lead to an 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 example above: 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.

Video: What You Need to Know About Proximate Cause


Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>