In an earlier blog, we addressed the first element of a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence—the requirement that you demonstrate a breach of the duty to act as a reasonable person. In addition, you must show that the defendant’s failure to meet the required standard of care caused the accident that resulted in your injuries or losses. This blog addresses the element of causation.
To succeed with a personal injury claim alleging negligence, you must first show that the defendant’s actions were the “actual cause” of your losses. Often referred to as “but for” causation, this element can usually be established or refuted by asking the simple question “would the accident have occurred in the absence of (but for) the defendant’s breach of the standard of care?” If the answer is yes, the defendant’s behavior is not the cause of the accident and the lawsuit will fail. If, however, the answer is no, you need to address the issue of proximate cause.
In many instances, there are a series of circumstances, typically happening sequentially, that result in accident and injury. The issue of proximate cause addresses how close (or proximate” the defendant’s breach of duty was to the actual injury or loss. The more remotely tied to the loss, the less likely there will be proximate cause.
In essence, proximate cause seeks to answer the question “was the injury or loss suffered reasonably foreseeable when the defendant engaged in the conduct that breached the duty of care?” Let’s look at an example. Suppose you are driving a car and sending and receiving text messages at the same time. Because you are distracted, you miss a stop sign or red light and slam into the side of another car. It’s reasonably foreseeable that driving while distracted could cause you to be in a motor vehicle accident, so there will likely be proximate cause for any injury to the other driver, passengers or damage to the other vehicle. However, if the car you hit was being driven by a heart surgeon, who was on his way to perform open-heart surgery and he is unable to perform the operation, there may not be proximate cause for any injury sustained by the heart patient and/or his family, as that type of result was not reasonably foreseeable.
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