Two Different Ways You Must Establish the Cause of Your Injuries
When you incur an injury because of the wrongful act of another person, you have the right to take legal action to recover damages (monetary compensation) for your losses. Most such cases are based on a legal theory of negligence. The law governing negligence requires the injured person (the plaintiff) to prove the following:
- The defendant (person from whom compensation is sought) failed to act as a reasonable person would;
- The failure to engage in reasonable conduct caused an accident; and
- The plaintiff suffered actual losses as a result of the accident.
Two Types of Causation in Personal Injury Lawsuits
To successfully prove causation in a negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove that the plaintiff’s failure to take reasonable care was both the actual or “but for” cause of the accident and the proximate cause of the accident. Each type of causation requires separate analysis.
What Is Actual or “But For” Causation?
To establish that the defendant’s negligence was the actual cause of the accident or injury, the plaintiff must show that the accident would not have happened if the defendant had acted reasonably (i.e., met the standard of care). Examples of “but for” causation:
- A driver fails to stop at a red light, colliding with another motorist who has the right of way. “But for” the carelessness of not stopping at the light, the accident would not have happened.
- A property owner invites people over for a party but fails to clear ice or snow from the sidewalk or steps, and a guest is injured when they slip and fall. “But for” the owner’s failure to remove the ice, the visitor would not have slipped and fell.
What Is Proximate Cause?
Though the “but for” test is fairly universally applied in personal injury claims, it poses inherent problems. With any accident, there can be multiple “but for” causes, making it difficult or impossible to determine which party should be liable. In addition, a “but for” cause can be found in almost every situation if you look closely enough.
As the law of negligence developed, it became clear that in some cases, a person’s actions could be construed as a “but for” cause of an accident but it seemed unfair to find the person liable. In such cases, the plaintiff’s injury was not something one might expect to occur as a result of the defendant’s actions. Accordingly, courts adopted the concept of proximate cause, which asks the question, “Was plaintiff’s injury reasonably foreseeable as a result of defendant’s negligence?” If not, then the defendant’s negligence was not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries, and the defendant is not liable for damages.
Examples of how the concept of proximate causation might be applied in a personal injury lawsuit:
- A motorist runs a stop sign and collides with another vehicle, which then veers into a gas station, hitting a gas pump, starting a fire, and burning down an entire city block. One of the homeowners on the block has a baseball card collection valued at $500,000. The initial collision between the two cars may be reasonably foreseeable as a consequence of failing to stop at a stop sign, but the fire and the loss of the baseball card collection probably would not be. In this case, the motorist who ran the stop sign should not be liable for the loss of the baseball card collection.
- A pedestrian slips and falls on an icy walkway. A passing motorist sees the accident, loses his focus on the road, and careens into a parked car. It’s reasonably foreseeable that someone might slip and fall if the owner of a walkway fails to clear away ice, so perhaps the owner would face liability to the pedestrian. But it’s not foreseeable that a car accident might result, so the owner should not be liable for damage to the parked car.
The concept of “reasonably foreseeable” is determined by the jury on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, the ultimate determination of proximate cause is made by the jury.
To succeed with a personal injury claim based on negligence, you must show both “but for” and proximate causation. “But for” or “actual” causation requires you to show that an injury would not have occurred had the defendant taken reasonable care. Proximate causation requires you to also prove that your injury was a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions.