What Is the Proximate Cause? Definition & Examples


To succeed in a personal injury claim, the claimant must prove the defendant negligent by showing that the defendant had a legal obligation to ensure their safety, also known as a duty of care. 

They must also show that the defendant failed in their obligation and that their failure caused the accident and injuries. This link between the defendant’s failure to uphold their duty of care and the accident is called causation under tort law and can be actual or proximate. 

Actual Cause

The actual cause or cause, in fact, refers to the event that was the direct cause of an accident. When arguing an event as an actual cause of injuries, the plaintiff’s lawyers seek to show that the accident would not have occurred but for the defendant’s actions. 

For example, if a driver fails to stop at a crosswalk when pedestrians had the right of way and strikes a pedestrian, the driver’s failure to stop becomes the actual cause because the accident would not have happened had the driver stopped.

Proximate Cause

Proximate cause, or legal cause, is the event that sets everything else in motion. Sometimes, the actual cause will also be the proximate cause. But there are situations where the proximate cause will differ from the actual cause. 

In the earlier example, where a car fails to stop at a crosswalk and hits a pedestrian, the actual cause is also the proximate cause. Now, suppose the car was pushed into the crosswalk by another vehicle that rear-ended it. 

In such a situation, the car that rear-ended the vehicle that struck the pedestrian would be the underlying cause of the accident, and their failure to stop would be the proximate cause.

Proving Causation

States have two main approaches for determining causation: the “substantial factor” and the “but for” test. The substantial factor test is the most commonly applied approach. This test looks at whether or not the defendant’s actions or inactions were a major factor in the accident. 

For example, if two speeding drivers meet at an intersection and the one that does not have the right of way hits the one that had the right of way, the court could rule that the car that did not have the right of way was a substantial factor and the drivers action the proximate cause of the accident and thus liable.

But for Test

The “but for” test looks at whether the accident would have occurred if not for the defendant’s negligence. 

“If the plaintiff can prove that the accident would not have occurred but for the defendant’s actions, the defendant can be held liable in the ancient. If not, they cannot be held liable,” says Attorney Kyle Valero of Valero Law Group.

Foreseeability and Proximate Cause 

Another critical consideration in determining liability is the foreseeability of the consequences of their actions. For example, every driver knows that using the phone while on the road significantly increases the chance of getting into an accident. 

So if an accident occurs due to a phone-related distraction, the driver will be liable. If the same driver crashes into a flammable substance storage facility and ignites a fire, they cannot be liable for the damage caused by the fire because the fire was not a foreseeable outcome of using a phone while driving.

Determining who is responsible for an accident can be quite challenging for the layperson. So whatever you do, do not go it alone. Always have a personal injury lawyer helping you navigate your claim. 

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