Proving Causation in a Personal Injury Case

Proving Causation in a Personal Injury Case

Picture this: a thin lady in a long coat jogs toward a passenger train. The train rolls slowly away from the station for departure. 

The thin lady sprints across the platform to catch the train. As she approaches the gap, a conductor reaches out to give the thin lady a lift onto the leaving train and a second railroad employee gives her a helpful push onto the train. 

The conductor and the employee are unaware, but the lady carries a package of fireworks. In their efforts to assist the lady, they cause the package to fall from her hands. 

The fireworks fall between the gap, hit the ground, and explode. BOOM. The explosion substantially damages the train station. A woman standing at the other end of the platform suffers catastrophic injuries.

The severely injured lady later sues the railroad company. Are the conductor and the employee responsible for the woman’s injuries? Did they really cause the woman’s injuries?

About Proving Causation in Your Personal Injury Case

proving causation

Proving legal causation is necessary in every personal injury case. This means it is not enough for a plaintiff to state that she has been injured and that the defendant is responsible to compensate her. Instead, the law requires a plaintiff to prove that the defendant caused the injury in question. 

This principle is called “legal causation,” and there are two types of legal cause. The two types of legal cause are (1) cause in fact and (2) proximate cause. A plaintiff in a personal injury claim must prove both to maintain their claim. 

Cause in Fact

“Cause in fact” means, simply, that a defendant’s actions actually caused the injury. In other words, the defendant’s actions were such that the injury in question would not have happened without them. 

This is sometimes called the “but-for test” in legal terminology because it asks the question “but for the defendant’s acts, would the injury in question have occurred?” If an injury would have occurred regardless of the defendant’s actions, then the defendant’s actions are not the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injury. 

But if an injury would not have occurred in the absence of the defendant’s act, the act is the cause in fact. Cause in fact is not enough to establish legal responsibility for an injury, though.

Many actual causes can exist for an injury. Not all of the causes are strong enough to support liability. The law also requires the plaintiff to establish a second, more direct, type of legal cause: proximate cause. 

Proximate Cause

wet floor

Proximate cause is a bit more difficult to prove. It can also be more difficult to apply this legal concept to real-life scenarios. The question of proximate cause looks at the relationship between an event and a specific injury. That is, how closely related a specific injury is to a certain event.

One relationship between an injury and an event that determines proximate cause: foreseeability.

For example, say two young girls are tossing a ball. One girl throws the ball toward the other one’s face, causing injury to the nose on her face. 

Since a reasonable person can predict that throwing a ball at another person’s face could cause them injury, it constitutes proximate causation of that injury. It was foreseeable that throwing a ball could cause a broken nose. It’s an expected risk of the act of throwing a ball.

A slip-and-fall is an expected result of leaving puddles of water on the floor. A dog bite is an expected risk of owning a dog. Some acts and consequences have become so common in the law that even non-lawyers are familiar with the risk of injury under certain circumstances.

Causation: Direct and Reasonable Consequences

But what about the woman injured by the fireworks knocked loose by the railroad employees? The woman, Mrs. Palsgraf, was a real plaintiff in a 1920s case that law professors still use today to teach the concept of causation in personal injury cases. Were the railroad employees’ helpful acts the cause of her severe injuries? 

Mrs. Palsgraf was injured by a roof tile that fell as a result of vibrations caused by the fireworks. The fireworks exploded when the employees who were trying to help a lady in a hurry knocked a package from her hand. A package they did not know she was carrying. 

Since the injury was one that could not have been predicted by any reasonable person watching the train pull away that day, the acts were not the proximate cause of the injury. If you were injured and you need help determining who is at fault for your injury, seek the advice of an experienced personal injury attorney.