What is a Proximate Cause?
In order to make a claim for negligence against a defendant, an auto accident victim needs to show:
- The defendant owed a duty of care to the victim
- The defendant breached this duty of care
- This breach of duty proximately caused the victim’s injuries
The defendant’s breach of duty is the proximate cause when it is both the cause in fact and the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
A court can hold several defendants liable for damages if the plaintiff can prove that each of them proximately caused the injuries.
What is Cause in Fact?
A court will consider the defendant to be the cause in fact of the injuries if the plaintiff proves that either:
- The injuries or property damage would not have occurred without the defendant’s actions
- Or, the defendant’s actions were a substantial factor that contributed to the injuries or property damage
- Tom’s leg broke only because Jeff ran a stop sign and crashed into him
- Or, Jeff ran a stop sign, causing Jane to swerve into Jeff, which breaks his leg
In either case, Jeff would be considered a cause in fact of the injuries. In the second example, Jane is also cause in fact of Tom’s injuries.
What is Legal Cause?
Legal causation is a question of foreseeability. A defendant’s actions legally cause the plaintiff’s injury if a reasonable person could foresee that the injury would occur as a likely result of the conduct.
Another question Illinois courts ask in determining legal causation is whether the defendant’s actions merely created a condition, as opposed to a cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
In short, if the defendant couldn’t reasonably foresee that his or her actions would cause injuries, or if the defendant’s actions merely created a condition for the injuries to occur, than the defendant’s actions are not considered to be the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Legal Cause is Largely a Question of Foreseeability
Let’s apply these principles to Jeff, Jane, and Tom’s unfortunate accident. Jeff runs a stop sign, which causes Jane to swerve into Tom, who suffers a broken leg as a result. We have already seen how Jeff is the cause in fact of Tom’s injuries.
Is Jeff also the legal cause of Tom’s injuries?
Yes, because a reasonable person knows that running a red light is likely to cause an accident. Even though it was Jane who struck Tom, Jane’s evasive maneuver was the natural and probable result of Jeff’s negligence.
Since Jeff’s poor driving is both the cause in fact and legal cause of Tom’s injuries, the requirements of proximate causation have been met, and Tom can hold Jeff liable for the injuries.
Since several defendants can be the proximate causes of a plaintiff’s injuries, Tom could also attempt to hold Jane responsible. We have seen that she is a cause in fact of Tom’s injuries. Since it is foreseeable that swerving in an intersection might cause an accident, Jane is also a legal cause of Tom’s injuries.
So, if Tom can show that Jane breached her duty of care to him, he could hold her liable for his injuries because, as we’ve seen, she was a proximate cause of the injuries.
The question would then become a matter of attributing a proportion of fault to both Jeff and Jane, and calculating their liabilities accordingly. But that’s a whole other topic, which needs its own article.