Establishing a Causal Link between the Defendant’s Breach of Duty and the Accident that Caused Your Losses
In Part One of this series, we looked at the standard of care required in a personal injury lawsuit and how it is determined. Once you’ve shown that another person failed to act as a reasonable person would, you must prove that this failure caused an accident (and that you suffered actual losses as a consequence of the accident). Under the law, there are two different types of causation, both of which must be shown: actual cause and proximate cause.
Actual cause, also known as “but for” cause, is typically pretty straightforward. It simply addresses the question of whether the accident would have occurred “but for” the defendant’s breach of the standard of care. Actual cause can be difficult to determine when there are multiple, concurrent causes to an accident. For example, if one motorist runs a stop sign and collides with a second motorist, but the second motorist had swerved to avoid a pothole, there could be but for cause on the part of the driver or the entity responsible for maintaining the road.
As a practical matter, it can be relatively easy to establish actual cause, even if the accident that occurred was not reasonably foreseeable as a result of the breach of the standard of care. That’s why the concept of proximate cause arose. Under the concept of proximate cause, the jury must determine that the accident caused was “reasonably foreseeable” as a consequence of the careless act. In other words, the negligent act must be “proximately” related to the accident such that a reasonable person would consider it the cause. As an example, if a motorist runs a red light, it may be reasonably foreseeable that he will strike another vehicle. However, it may not be reasonably foreseeable that the other vehicle would careen into a gas station, hit a gas pump and cause a fire that burns down a city block.
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