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Proving Causation in Personal Injury Case

Proving Causation in Personal Injury Case

Causation is one of the most important parts of all the personal injury claims.

Most personal injury cases are based on a theory that someone was negligent, which requires you to prove four different elements of negligence to recover damages.

For your personal injury claim, you may be able to prove that a defendant was negligent if they did one of this four things:

  • Owed you a duty of care;
  • Breached their duty of care;
  • The breach caused your injuries;
  • And you experienced damages.

Causation is the third element of a negligence claim. So, in every personal injury case, you must be able to prove that the defendant caused your injuries to recover compensation for your losses. If a person’s intentional act or negligence did not actually cause your injury, you most likely could not hold them liable.

As a legal matter, causation is divided into two parts: 

  • Cause-in-fact (But-for cause); and 
  • Proximate Cause 

You must be able to prove both types of causation to satisfy the element. 

Part One: Cause-in-fact or Actual Cause

Cause-in-fact is concerned with whether your injury would have occurred if not for the defendant’s conduct. Therefore, cause-in-fact, also known as actual cause, can be determined by a very simple test. 

The cause-in-fact Test: But-for Test   

Cause-in-fact is determined by the “but for” test. This test is relatively simple and straightforward as a legal matter.  Whenever there is a personal injury claim based on negligence, you can determine the cause-in-fact by asking yourself the following question: 

But for the defendant’s conduct, would there have been an injury?  This simple question determines whether the conduct of a defendant is the actual cause of an injury. It is applicable to any situation, whether simple or complex. 

For example, say a defendant runs a red light and collides with your car. You suffer whiplash and require medical treatment. The defendant’s conduct was the cause-in-fact of your injury. But for the defendant’s running the red light, you would not have suffered whiplash.

Once actual cause is proven, we move on to proximate cause. 

Part Two: Proximate Cause? 

Cause-in-fact or Actual Cause

Proximate cause is less straightforward than cause-in-fact. As its name suggests, it involves determining what falls within the proximity or the scope of causation. In other words, how far can causation go? You might see potential cases where there is a huge causal chain that ultimately results in someone’s injuries. For instance, the defendant runs the red light and hits you; you hit another driver, who hits another driver, who hits another driver, and so on.  

However, if this chain gets too long, unpredictable, or complex, it might not be fair to hold the initial person liable. Therefore, proximate cause is concerned with fairness and seeks to limit the defendant’s liability to foreseeable injuries to foreseeable plaintiffs.. 

This can be better understood by way of the proximate cause test. 

The Proximate Cause Test 

The proximate cause test is not as simple as the but-for test. The proximate cause test requires you to ask two different questions about a set of facts or a specific situation. Let’s return to our example where the driver runs a red light and hits you.

The questions you would ask are:

  • Should the driver have reasonably foreseen that his negligence would result in this kind of injury? 
  • Should the driver have reasonably foreseen that his negligence would result in injury to this specific plaintiff? 

In other words, the defendant will only be liable for foreseeable injuries to foreseeable plaintiffs. In our original example, the defendant is clearly the proximate cause of your injuries. They should have foreseen that running the red light could cause a crash and injuries with you, another driver on the road.

But what if there is a longer chain of events. For example, say our defendant runs the red light and hits you, and again you sustain whiplash. This time, you run into the car in front of you, inflicting a head injury to the driver. 

Reading this hypothetical situation, you may wonder whether the defendant can be held liable for the driver’s head injuries even though you were the one who actually collided with the driver. However, let’s try the proximate cause test. Could the defendant have reasonably foreseen that his running the redlight would result in a multi-car accident that caused head injuries to another driver that he did not directly collide with? Most likely, yes.

While such examples and explanations might help you determine whether there is causation in your personal injury case, these issues are incredibly complex. It is always best to consult with an attorney to determine whether a person negligently caused your injuries. 

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