Generally speaking, in a personal injury lawsuit, you must prove that the defendant was negligent in some way. As such, it is helpful to discuss negligence before further discussing cause in fact and proximate cause in a personal injury lawsuit.
Negligence is a legal claim associated with when someone is harmed because of another person’s carelessness. It is also associated with another person’s failure to exercise the same level of care that an ordinary person would exercise under similar circumstances.
The plaintiff must prove the following four elements in order to show that the defendant acted in a negligent manner:
- Duty: This refers to the level of care that is owed to one person by another. In terms of a personal injury lawsuit, it must be shown that the defendant owed the plaintiff a legal duty of care under the circumstances. The exact duty of care can be influenced by different factors, such as the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant;
- Breach: This refers to when the defendant breached their duty of care by acting or failing to act in a certain way. In order to determine if someone breached their duty of care, a court will use the “reasonable person” standard. This standard is based on how an average, reasonable person would responsibly act in a similar situation. If an average person would have acted differently under similar circumstances in order to avoid causing injuries, the defendant will most likely be found negligent;
- Causation: It must be shown that the defendant’s actions actually caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The two types of causation are “cause in fact” and “proximate cause,” which will be further discussed below. Simply put, cause in fact is based on whether the negligent act was the actual cause of the injuries.
- It can be proven by using the “but for” test; in other words by asking “but for the actions of the defendant, would the injury have happened?” Proximate cause is based on whether the defendant could have reasonably foreseen that their actions might cause an injury; and
- Damages: What this means is that there was some loss or damage because of the negligent action, and that the court would be able to compensate the plaintiff. The plaintiff is generally compensated through monetary compensation.
In summary, one of the key issues in a negligence claim is causation. You must show that the defendant’s actions or misconduct resulted in your injuries. Because the legal concept of causation involves cause in fact and proximate cause, you must have evidence supporting both types of causation in order to win a personal injury case.
Understanding Cause In Fact And Proximate Cause
Cause in fact is sometimes referred to as “actual cause.” In other words, you must prove that the defendant actually caused your injuries. An example of this would be how if a driver runs a red light and T-bones your car, it is likely that their conduct was the cause in fact.
In comparison, proximate cause is the more complicated legal concept of the two. Proximate cause likely exists if your injuries were foreseeable. What this means is that the defendant should have reasonably anticipated that their conduct could result in your injuries. An example of this would be how someone should reasonably foresee that drunk driving could result in a serious car accident, and/or the loss of life.
However, it is important to note that defendants are generally not liable for injuries that were unpredictable, or could not be reasonably linked to their conduct. An example of this would be the following pattern:
- You run a red light;
- Another driver overreacts and swerves violently in order to avoid a collision;
- This driver strikes a building containing hazardous chemicals, and starts a fire; and
- Fumes from the fire seriously sickened the resident of a nearby apartment building.
In such a case, you could reasonably argue that the fume-related injuries were not foreseeable. However, you may still be responsible for the other driver’s injuries, because running a red light could foreseeably cause a car accident.
What Is The Eggshell Plaintiff Doctrine?
Before discussing defenses in a personal injury lawsuit, it is important to note that you may be responsible for injuries in which the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries was not actually foreseeable. Although this seems contradictory to the point that was just made, under the “eggshell plaintiff doctrine,” you must take the plaintiff as you find them.
An example of this would be if you run a red light, and rear-end another vehicle. The other driver has a brittle bone disorder, and as such the collision causes a leg fracture. You cannot use the brittle bone disorder as a defense in order to reduce or escape liability; you must take the plaintiff as you find them.
What If The Injured Party Placed Themselves At Risk?
Contributory negligence and assumption of risk are two defenses in a personal injury lawsuit. They essentially assert that the injured party’s own misconduct partially caused their injuries. A judge and/or jury considers the plaintiff’s fault in an accident, instead of just the defendant, and allows them to reduce monetary compensation according to the amount of contribution. In some cases, they may deny it altogether.
Contributory negligence doctrine states that if the plaintiff is found to be at all negligent in the incident at issue, they cannot recover any damages from the defendant. If a jury or judge finds that a plaintiff was even one percent at fault for the accident, they get nothing.
Comparative negligence can come in different forms. Examples include:
- Pure Comparative Negligence: The plaintiff is not barred from recovery, even if the judge or jury finds that the plaintiff is 99 percent at fault for the accident at issue. The amount they can receive in monetary damages is reduced by their fault percentage;
- Modified Comparative Negligence (50% Rule): This approach bars plaintiff recovery if they are found to be 50 percent or more at fault. If they are deemed to be 49 percent or less negligent, they can still recover damages; and/or
- Modified Comparative Negligence (51% Rule): The same rule applies as above; however, the percentage of plaintiff negligence that bars recovery is slightly higher. The damaged party can recover if the judge or jury deems that they are 50 percent or lower responsible. The idea is that when the plaintiff and defendant share the blame equally, the injured party should still be able to seek compensation even if the amount will be reduced.
As a few states may use a combination of these, you should talk to an injury attorney when considering legal action. Such recovery rules could affect what approach is best for your situation.
Assumption of risk arises when a plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily assumes a risk of harm associated with the negligence of the defendant. If the plaintiff has assumed such a risk, they cannot recover damages for any harm that results from the defendant’s conduct. This remains true even if the defendant was negligent or reckless.
In order to prove the defense of assumption of risk, the defendant must show that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the risk involved in the conduct or activity. Additionally, the defendant must show that the plaintiff voluntarily accepted the risk, either expressly through agreement or implied by their words and/or conduct. This means that they cannot be forced to perform the activity.
Additionally, it is generally necessary to prove that either the danger was obvious, or that the nature of the conduct was inherently dangerous.
Do I Need An Attorney To Assist With Cause In Fact And Proximate Cause In A Personal Injury Lawsuit?
If you have been injured and wish to pursue legal action, you will need to be aware of how cause in fact and proximate cause will affect your case.
An experienced and local personal injury attorney can help you understand the specifics of your case, and how your state’s specific laws may impact a damages award. Additionally, a personal injury lawyer will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.