Actual and Proximate Cause
In the first blog in this series on understanding a personal injury lawsuit, we looked at the standard of care for a personal injury action based on a theory of negligence—that the defendant must have breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiff and to society. Once you have established that the defendant’s behavior fell short of that reasonably expected under the circumstances, you must show a causal relationship between the wrongful act and the accident. Under the law as it has developed, you must show two types of cause—actual cause and proximate cause.
Actual cause, also known as “but for” cause, is typically pretty straightforward. It simply asks the question whether or not the accident would have occurred had the defendant not breached the duty of care. Actual cause can become a little tricky if the plaintiff also breached the duty of care. For example, if the plaintiff ran a red light, but the defendant was traveling in excess of the speed limit on an icy road, an argument could be made that if the plaintiff had not run the traffic light, there would have been no accident.
Proximate cause asks the question “was the accident reasonably foreseeable based on the defendant’s breach of the standard of care?” Essentially, it holds that a defendant can’t be held responsible for every conceivable result of a breach of care, but only those that could reasonably be expected. For example, if a motorist runs a stop sign, it’s reasonable to expect that there will be traffic coming the other way and running the stop sign will cause an accident. However, if there’s a gas station across the street and the accident causes another car to careen into a gas pump, starting a fire and burning down a library on the next block, the defendant probably won’t be held liable for the loss of the rare book collection at the library, as it wasn’t reasonably foreseeable.
Contact the Law Offices of McNerney & McAuliffe
Contact our office by e-mail or call us at 201-525-1980. All major credit cards are welcome. We will travel to meet with you, if necessary. Evening and weekend consultations are available upon request.