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Proximate clause


When someone else’s negligence has injured you, you have a right to expect the at-fault party to pay for your injuries and other damages. It means dealing with the at-fault party’s insurance company. If you’ve been injured in a car accident, suffered a slip-and-fall, or were hurt in any other kind of accident, the burden will be on you to prove who is to blame for your injury.

This is the legal term used to describe the specific cause of your injuries. Here is where we unpack what you need to know about the proximate cause, and how the insurance company will look at all the factors that might have contributed to your injury.

What is “Proximate Cause” in Injury Claims?

Personal injury claims happen because of someone’s negligence. That means the at-fault party (person or business) did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances. To prove the other party was negligent, you or your attorney will have to show.

  1. The other party had a duty of care to avoid harming you
  2. The other party breached their duty of care through negligence
  3. You were injured because of this breach
  4. The other party’s negligence was the proximate cause, meaning “legal cause” of your injury

When a person is injured as a direct result of someone’s action, that action is usually the proximate cause of the injury. Injury claims can get complicated, especially when there are multiple at-fault parties, or the parties don’t agree on the proximate cause of the injuries.

If you’ve been injured in a complicated accident, talk to a personal injury attorney about protecting your right to compensation.

Direct and Proximate Cause May Not Be the Same

The proximate cause might not be the first event that triggered a series of events leading to injuries, and it might not be the last thing that happened before the injury occurs.

Defining Proximate Cause in Your Claim

Nailing down the specific cause of your injuries isn’t always easy. Even when you have no doubt in your mind who is to blame for your injuries, you’ll still have to convince the insurance adjuster that their insured is at fault.

There are two methods lawyers use to help prove proximate cause and fault. You can use one of these methods to support your argument about who caused your injuries.

The “Substantial Factor” Rule

Some states have tort law, meaning injury case rules, that include the “substantial factor” test for proximate cause. The rule takes a hard look at whether the other party’s errors were a substantial factor in causing the injury.

A substantial factor is one that contributes significantly to the circumstances leading to the injury. Generally, a substantial factor is something that’s going on right up until the person gets hurt. A mistake or oversight that only slightly contributes to the circumstances is not a substantial factor and won’t count as a proximate cause.

For example, a man is walking along the sidewalk on a wintry day carrying a very large box that makes it hard for him to see where he is going.

  • If the man runs into a pedestrian, causing her to fall and break an arm, the man’s failure to watch where he was going was a negligent action that is the proximate cause of the woman’s injury.
  • On the other hand, if the pedestrian stepped into the street to go around the man and breaks her arm from a slip and fall on the icy curb, the man is not the proximate cause of the pedestrian’s injury.

Proximate Cause and the “But for” Rule

Another way to determine the proximate cause is the “But for” rule. It means that, but for the action or omission of a person, the injury would not have occurred.

The proximate cause can also apply to property damage. If Jack’s smartwatch shattered when he fell in the convenience store, he could include the cost of the watch in his claim.

When the Victim Shares Blame

No insurance adjuster will pay the full value of your injury claim if they can find a reason to lay the blame on you.

In Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, the adjuster can use contributory negligence laws to completely deny your claim if you share even 1% of the blame for your injuries.

Fortunately, most states have comparative negligence rules that allow victims to seek compensation even if they are partly to blame. The person’s compensation can be reduced or denied depending on how much of the blame belongs to them.

You don’t have to settle for the insurance adjuster’s determination of blame. You have the right to consult an experienced injury attorney to make sure you get the compensation you deserve.

Foreseeable Events and Proximate Cause

Whether an injury claim relies on the substantial factor test or the “But for” rule, the proximate cause of an injury must have been a foreseeable event. Foreseeable means to be aware of the reasonable possibility that something could happen. In injury claims, it means the at-fault party should have been able to foresee that their negligence could cause someone to get hurt. In plain talk, the at-fault person should have known better.

If there’s no way a certain condition would injure a reasonable person, the responsible party can’t be held liable. In the above example, if Sue had been injured while climbing over a mound of snow on the mall’s property, management would not be liable. They could not foresee a reasonable person doing it.

Foreseeability is important in showing proximate cause. If an at-fault party should have been able to predict their action could lead to an accident and injuries, then this is usually the proximate cause.

A truck driver could reasonably predict that driving while intoxicated could lead to an accident and injuries. The driver’s negligence would be the proximate cause of the victim’s injuries.

Third Parties and Foreseeability

Proximate cause does not apply to third parties who may be injured in the extended circumstances of an accident.

Consider a variation of the example above: if Sue had been pushing a shopping cart, she might try to hang on to it to keep from falling on the icy walkway. The cart could have slipped and out of her grasp. And also crashed into another person, causing him to fall and be injured.

Although the mall’s failure to clear the walkway was found to have partially caused Sue’s injuries, it was not foreseeable that she would push her cart into another person.

It’s unlikely a court would find the mall liable for that third party’s injuries. However, have a valid claim against Sue.


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