From the time we are children, we learn that being careless can bring about unwanted consequences. When we were told to pick up our toys so our parents didn’t trip and “break their necks,” we were getting a lesson not only in carelessness, but also in causation. The fact that the act of leaving the toys out (or alternatively phrased, the inaction of not picking them up,) might be the cause of injury to someone we cared about was meant to instill some kind of sense of responsibility for what we did.
While the above example was prospective; that is, it was warning of possible future harm, causation is also sometimes a factor that needs to be examined after events have already occurred. This blog has previously discussed the fact that negligence, or carelessness, is the root of most injury suits based on car accidents. We have also touched on some of the elements of a negligence action, such as legal duty, breach, and cause in fact.
There is another part to the causation idea, however, and that is called ‘proximate cause.’ While cause in fact simply asks whether the injury would have occurred but for the negligence of the defendant, proximate cause asks a slightly different and somewhat more complex question. That is, for the proximate cause element of a negligence case to be met, the injury to the accident victim must have been a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant’s breach.
Taking our child’s toy example, our parents hurting themselves by tripping and falling on the discarded toys would probably be a foreseeable consequence of leaving them out. But what if instead, Dad stepped on the toy while carrying a knife, and dropped the blade on his bare foot? Would that be an injury reasonably foreseeable as a result of not picking up a toy? These issues may not seem relevant, but similar questions are often addressed in civil suits and an experienced attorney may be able to help accident victims get the compensation they deserve by proving the necessary elements of the legal case.