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Personal Injury

  • Negligence - Proximate Cause

Proximate Cause

Proximate Cause
Cause in Fact Foreseeability
But-For Causation Substantial Factor

The third requirement for a negligence lawsuit is proximate cause, or legal cause. In addition to showing that the defendant breached a legal duty, the plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer must show that this breach was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The defendant could have breached a legal duty by doing something he wasn’t supposed to do, or by failing to do something he was supposed to do. A judge or jury has the final say on if the defendant’s actions are the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Proximate cause is made up of two parts: cause in fact and foreseeability.

  1. Cause in Fact- “Cause in fact” means actual cause, as opposed to legal cause. It’s important to note that an injury can have more than one cause in fact. To bring a negligence lawsuit, the defendant’s breach must be one cause in fact, but it doesn’t have to be the only cause in fact. If there are other factors that may have caused the injury, the plaintiff’s lawyer must show that the defendant’s breach was most likely a cause of the injury. To see if there is cause in fact, there are two elements that must be met:
    1. “But for” test- The first element is known as the “but for” test, as in: would the injury have happened but for the defendant’s breach? In other words, if the defendant’s breach never happened, would the plaintiff still have been injured? If the injury would still have happened without the defendant’s breach, there is no “but-for” causation. If the injury would not have otherwise happened, then there is “but-for” causation.
      • For example, in the 1985 Texas Supreme Court case Williams v. Steves Industries, a driver’s car ran out of gas and stalled in the middle of a busy highway, leading to a collision [1]. The court said that the driver’s failure to put gas in the car was a cause in fact of the accident – the car wouldn’t have stalled, and the collision would not have happened, but for the driver’s failure to put gas in the car.
      • The 2002 Texas Supreme Court case Excel Corp. v. Apodaca is a good example of a plaintiff who was unable to prove “but-for” causation, even though the defendant breached a legal duty to protect the plaintiff [2]. An assembly line worker at a meat packing plant was able to show that the plant should have employed better safety measures, but could not prove that he would not have been injured if better safety measures had been in place. Because the worker couldn’t prove that but for the lack of safety measures, he wouldn’t have gotten hurt - the worker could not prove “but for” causation.
    2. Substantial Factor test: The second element of “cause in fact” is: was the defendant’s breach a “substantial factor” in causing the injury? Was the defendant’s behavior closely connected to the injury? Or were there a lot of steps between the defendant’s breach and the injury? The breach and the injury must be closely related to pass the substantial factor test. If the defendant’s behavior only creates a condition in which the plaintiff’s injury was possible, then it is not a substantial factor. The court decides whether the behavior was related closely enough to be a substantial factor by asking whether reasonable people would consider the breach to be responsible for the injury.
      • One factor the court looks at is if at the time of the injury, the results of the defendant’s behavior were still in motion. So assume the defendant’s breach created a state of crisis or dangerous commotion. If the injury happens during the crisis, then the breach was likely a substantial factor. However, if the plaintiff’s injury happens after the state of crisis is over, the breach is not likely a substantial factor.
        • For instance, the 1995 Texas Supreme Court case Union Pump Co. v. Allbritton [3]. Union Pump Co. had a defective pipe that caused a fire, and a worker slipped on a wet surface after the fire was put out. The court found that because the fire had already stopped at the time of the worker’s injury, the company’s breach was not a substantial factor.

  2. Foreseeability- The second part of proximate cause is foreseeability. Should the defendant have predicted the danger caused by his breach? The question is whether the injury was foreseeable from the defendant’s point of view. The test for foreseeability assumes the defendant has ordinary intelligence, experience, and common sense. Here, we’re looking to see if there was any probable, or likely, danger; just the possibility of danger is not enough. Injuries that are a result of unusual or extraordinary circumstances, like freak accidents, are not considered foreseeable.

Intervening Causes- An intervening cause is something that happens to the plaintiff, and contributes to their injury, besides the defendant’s breach of duty. This can either happen when there’s another party beside the defendant who causes injury, or a natural cause, such as a tornado. An important distinction must be made between two types of intervening causes: concurrent causes and superseding causes. Superseding causes release the defendant from liability, while concurrent causes do not.

  • Concurrent cause: For an intervening cause to be a concurrent cause, it must happen simultaneously with the defendant’s original negligent act. Importantly, a defendant can be held legally responsible when there is an intervening concurrent cause. If the incident is considered foreseeable, it’s always a concurrent cause. However, there are times when an unforeseeable incident will be considered a concurrent cause. This can happen when the incident coincides with the original negligence in a “continuous and unbroken” manner [4].
    • Example: In the 1987 Texas Supreme Court case El Chico Corp. v. Poole [5], a bar breached its duty by continuing to serve an intoxicated patron, who then caused a deadly car accident. The patron’s choice to drive drunk was an intervening cause of the accident, but because the court determined it was a concurrent cause, the bar was not relieved of liability. That the patron would drive drunk was foreseeable given that the bar continued to serve him alcohol. In this situation, both the bar and the patron were held responsible.

  • Superseding cause: An intervening cause is considered a superseding cause when it is an independent and new incident, separate from the defendant’s original negligent act. A defendant cannot be held legally responsible for a superseding cause, mainly because it is not foreseeable. When a third party commits an unforeseeable intentional tort or criminal act, it is usually considered a superseding cause, and the defendant will not be held legally responsible for the plaintiff’s injury.
    • Example: In the 1998 case Coleman v. Equitable Real Estate, a shopping center store employee violated security policies when he allowed a non-employee into the store after hours [6]. The employee and a coworker were both killed by the man allowed to enter the store. The family of the coworker sued the shopping center’s property manager for failure to provide security officers. The court determined that the employee’s violation of security policies was unforeseeable and considered a new and independent cause, or a superseding cause. As a result, the shopping center could not be held legally responsible.

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