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Causation is a critical element in many personal injury cases because it establishes the link between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injuries. Typically, to win a personal injury claim, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendant’s negligence was the cause of their injuries.

The Four Elements of a Negligence Claim

The Four Elements of a Negligence Claim

To win a personal injury claim based on negligence, you must prove the following legal elements:

  • The defendant owed a duty of care to the injured party (typically the plaintiff, but not always);
  • The defendant breached the above-mentioned duty of care;
  • The plaintiff suffered a physical injury; and
  • The defendant’s breach of duty caused the plaintiff’s injury.

Different elements apply to claims, such as product liability, that are not based on negligence. Regardless of the type of personal injury claim, however, you must always establish causation to prove liability.

The Two Types of Causation

Personal injury law breaks down causation into two components, which are cause in fact and proximate cause.

Cause in Fact

Cause in fact is almost always based on a “but for” test. If you can truthfully say that “but for the defendant’s misconduct, the injury would not have occurred,” then the cause in fact requirement is met.

There are rare exceptions to the requirement. Suppose two people aim their guns at the victim’s head, and both fire at the same time, killing the victim. Each might argue that since the other’s bullet would be sufficient to kill the victim, the “cause in fact” element was not present. 

Courts will not accept this reasoning. Both defendants will be liable if their actions constituted a “substantial factor” in bringing about the undesirable result. One of the defendants might be relieved of civil liability (but probably not criminal liability) if their shot failed to hit the victim.

The substantial factor test prevents the endless finger-pointing that would otherwise turn a personal injury trial into something more closely resembling a circus sideshow. Nevertheless, cause in fact alone is insufficient to establish liability. 

Proximate Cause

Proximate cause is the second prong of the causation test. The link between the defendant’s conduct and the victim’s injury must be straightforward enough to allow the defendant to foresee the likelihood of injury and avoid it. Sometimes, the link between the defendant’s misconduct and the victim’s injury was based on a chain of events so improbable that no one could reasonably be expected to foresee it. In that event, the proximate cause element fails, and the defendant is not liable.

The landmark case on this issue is one that every law student is familiar with: Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., which was decided way back in 1928. In that case, two attendants clumsily attempted to help a passenger board a train. The man dropped his briefcase, which contained explosives. A woman standing far away was injured in the ensuing explosion, and she sued the railroad for negligence. 

The court ruled that the chain of events was so improbable, at least from the point of view of the railroad, that the attendants’ clumsiness was not the proximate cause of the explosion (even though it was the cause in fact). For this reason, the court refused to hold the railroad liable for the woman’s injuries.

The Purpose of the Requirement for Proximate Cause

Fundamental principles of fairness dictate that a person should have a reasonable opportunity to comply with the law before bearing negative consequences for breaking it. This leads to the conclusion that, in most cases, a person should not bear liability for an accident they could not foresee and, therefore, could not have prevented. Imagine the explosion of litigation that would result if you could hold someone responsible for unforeseeable negative consequences.

Causation and Comparative Fault

Previously, Georgia held to the principle of joint and several liability, where each liable party was responsible for 100% of the defendant’s damages, meaning that the defendant could pick the richest defendant and sue them for 100% of the value of their claim.

All that changed when Georgia adopted the comparative fault system. Under the comparative fault system, a court apportions fault among the parties on a “percentage of fault” basis. If you were 15% at fault, for example, you must pay 15% of the defendant’s damages. The only exception is that any party at least 50% at fault can receive no damages for their own injuries.

Relationship With Causation

Comparative fault is related to causation because you bear liability if your conduct was a substantial cause of the victim’s injuries, in terms of both cause in fact and proximate cause. The defendant can even bear liability for causing their own injury if their behavior was a substantial cause of their injury.

A Tifton Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help You Prove Your Claim

Injuries caused by negligence can have a significant impact on your life. It is important to take the necessary steps to protect your rights. A knowledgeable Tifton personal injury attorney can help you understand your options and guide you through the process of seeking compensation. Contact our law firm The King Firm by calling (229) 386-1376 and get a free consultation.

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