Cause in Fact and Proximate Cause in a Personal Injury Lawsuit

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What are Cause in Fact and Proximate Cause in a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Cause in Fact and Proximate Cause are elements of proof in most personal injury lawsuits. Many personal injury lawsuits are based on a negligence theory.  In order to prove negligence, the following elements must be met:

Thus, cause in fact and proximate cause are part of the “causation” element in a negligence suit. They are two different concepts, and both must be proven in order for the plaintiff to recover damages for their personal injury.

How Does Cause in Fact Work?

Cause in fact requires that the defendant’s negligent conduct was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. This is also known as the “but-for” test. “But for” the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff would not have been injured. 

A common example is where the defendant was speeding and caused an automobile accident. “But for” the defendant’s speeding, the plaintiff would not have suffered the accident. In other words, the defendant’s actions must be the sole, actual cause (the cause in fact) of the injuries.

How Does Proximate Cause Work?

Proximate cause refers to the “foreseeability” of the injuries. That is, the plaintiff’s injuries must be a foreseeable result of the defendant’s conduct. If the injuries are far removed from the defendant’s conduct, then the plaintiff will not recover. The defendant cannot be held liable for injuries that are unpredictable and don’t have a reasonable link to his or her actions.

For example, suppose that a speeding driver collided with a truck that was carrying explosives. Upon impact, the truck exploded and caused a traffic light to collapse a mile away, which injured a bystander. Here, the speeding driver most likely won’t be held liable for the bystander’s injuries- it is highly unforeseeable that their injury would result from the collision. However, the speeding driver might be liable for injuries caused to the truck driver. 

Proximate means “close to” or “near.” Another way of thinking of proximate cause is that the injury should be close in time and close in the “chain of causation” linked to the defendant’s actions.

What if the Injured Party Placed Themselves at Risk?

If it is believed that the injured party placed themselves at risk, it could affect the outcome of the lawsuit. This is because the causation element may be negated or undermined if the plaintiff had placed themselves at risk. In such cases, it may be possible that the plaintiff actually caused their own injury or at least contributed in some way.

When factoring in the idea of risk into the causation analysis, courts will usually consider several factors including:

Thus, there are several different tests that a court may apply when proving causation in a negligence claim. These may vary by jurisdiction and can be very complicated, so it’s best to work with a lawyer when filing a personal injury lawsuit.

How Can a Lawyer Help With Cause in Fact and Proximate Cause?

It can sometimes be difficult to prove cause in fact and proximate cause in a personal injury lawsuit. If you have any questions regarding the cause of your injuries, you should speak with a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. While there are many "lawsuit lawyers" out there, an experienced injury attorney in your area can explain the laws on negligence to you, which can be very different from state to state. Your lawyer can help you file a lawsuit in order to help you recover damages for your losses.

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Last Modified: 01-19-2015 12:14 PM PST

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