What is "proximate cause"?

In order to win a personal injury case, the injured person must show that his injury was caused by the defendant’s negligence. When deciding whether the defendant’s acts caused the plaintiff’s injury, the court asks two questions: whether the defendant’s act was the cause in fact of the injury, and whether the defendant’s act was the proximate cause or legal cause of the injury.

Determining proximate cause is necessary because not everyone or everything that causes an injury is legally liable. For instance, suppose a driver loses control on an icy road and crashes his car, getting injured in the accident. The ice on the road is the cause in fact or “but-for” cause of the accident: but for the ice, the driver would not have crashed and been injured. However, the ice cannot be held liable for the accident: It cannot be sued and cannot pay damages. Courts use proximate cause to determine whether the cause in fact of an accident can be held liable.

In most torts cases, proximate cause is a question of foreseeability. If the particular injury that resulted was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s conduct, then proximate cause exists. Courts ask the question, “Was the injury foreseeable?” in many ways, including:

  • Was the type of harm foreseeable? In most cases, a defendant will be held liable for all the direct consequences of his actions as long as some part of the harm is foreseeable. Also, the defendant may be liable even if the injury that occurred was unlikely, as long as a reasonable person would have taken steps to prevent that kind of injury from occurring.
  • Was the manner of harm foreseeable? Usually, if the plaintiff’s injury is the type that might be reasonably foreseen, the way in which the injury actually occurs does not have to be foreseeable.
  • Was the extent of the harm foreseeable? This question often involves the eggshell plaintiff rule. In most cases, the defendant will be liable even if the injury is much more severe than he would have expected.

Finally, courts looking at proximate cause will ask whether the plaintiff herself is among the people the defendant could have reasonably foreseen would be injured by his actions.

For instance, consider the famous New York case Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad. In Palsgraf, Mrs. Palsgraf was standing at one end of a long train platform. At the other end of the platform, a man was running to board a train. As the train began to move, the man leapt onboard, but had trouble balancing. A railroad employee on the train and another railroad employee on the platform pushed and pulled at the man, trying to get him onto the train.

As it happened, the man was carrying a package of fireworks, which fell out of his hands as the railroad workers jostled him and exploded when it hit the ground. The exploding fireworks scared the crowd on the platform, and one person in the crowd tipped over a heavy set of scales. The scales landed on Mrs. Palsgraf and injured her. Mrs. Palsgraf sued the railroad, claiming the railroad workers were negligent by jostling the man with the fireworks, which resulted in her being injured by the falling scales.

The court, however, disagreed with Mrs. Palsgraf. It held that proximate cause did not exist because the railroad workers would not reasonably have foreseen that Mrs. Palsgraf was one of the people that would be hurt if they tried to push or pull a passenger onto the train. Without proximate cause, Mrs. Palsgraf could not hold the railroad liable for negligence. This rule is sometimes known as the “harm within the risk” or HWR rule.

A handful of U.S. courts do not apply the foreseeable person test used in Palsgraf. Instead, these courts use a “direct consequences” analysis. The direct consequences rule states that a defendant who starts a chain of events is liable for the injuries of anyone who suffers injury from that chain of events, as long as the chain is not broken by an intervening or superseding cause.

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