What is Causation?

What is Causation?

If you were injured in a car accident and wanted to be compensated by the driver, you would have to show that your injuries were actually caused by the accident and the driver’s conduct. 

Causation has to be considered under two circumstances: 

  • Negligence; claiming that your injury was due to the defendant’s negligence 
  • Intentional wrong; claiming that your injury was due to the defendant’s intentional act 

Whether you are trying to show that a defendant’s intentional act or their negligence harmed you, causation is a necessary element. 

Under the law, there are two sides to causation:  

  • Factual Cause (But-for cause)
  • Proximate Cause 

To show that an injury was actually caused by someone else’s negligence under the law, both factual cause and proximate cause must be proven. 

What is Factual Causation?

Factual cause

Factual cause means that the incident wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the defendant’s actions.

Basically, factual cause looks at whether without the defendant’s conduct, the injury would have still happened.

If the injury would have happened regardless of what the defendant did then their conduct did not cause the injury. 

How is Factual Causation Proven? 

Distracted driver

Factual cause is commonly determined by a very simple test which is called the  “but for” test.

The test asks whether but for the conduct or incident that you are complaining of the resulted injury would not have occured. What does that mean in the case of an accident? 

Let’s assume you got into an accident because the other driver was texting. Texting is not what a reasonable and prudent driver would do, not only because it is illegal, but also because it is distracting. In such a case, you are trying to show that but for the driver getting distracted you would not have been injured

To make it easier, ask yourself what would have happened if the driver had acted responsibly? The accident would not have happened. That makes the driver’s conduct the factual cause of the accident. 

Take another example: Let’s say you go to a restaurant for a meal. The waiter is supposed to ask customers if they have a peanut allergy but forgets. You order a meal with peanuts in it and you don’t know you are allergic to peanuts, but you show a severe allergic reaction to them. 

Is there a factual cause between the waiter having forgotten to ask you about the allergy and your allergic reaction? Probably not. Why? Because assuming you didn’t know you were allergic, you would have answered no even if the defendant’s conduct hadn’t happened and the waiter remembered to ask you. As a result, you still would have eaten the food and shown an allergic reaction to the meal.

What is Proximate Causation? 

Proximate cause has more to do with what is reasonably foreseeable. Proximate cause is intended to limit liability in the cases where the injury seems too far removed from the conduct that caused it, even if the but-for test is met. Put simply, it considers whether it makes sense to hold the defendant accountable for a result if it was not reasonably foreseeable to them. 

How is Proximate Causation Proven? 

speed limit

For proximate cause, you are asking yourself whether, given all the circumstances, the defendant should actually be held liable for the injury caused. 

Take this example: Ms. B is sick and calls the hospital for an ambulance. The ambulance does not arrive within ten minutes so she asks her friend to take her to the hospital. Her friend goes fifty miles over the speed limit and gets into an accident that hurts Ms. B. Is the fact that the hospital failed to send an ambulance within ten minutes the proximate cause of Ms. B’s injuries?

To answer this, ask yourself: Was it reasonably foreseeable to the hospital that their failure to send an ambulance within ten minutes would result in Ms. B’s friend driving fifty miles over the speed limit and getting into an accident and hurting Ms. B? Probably not. This is a classic example of a situation in which there is no proximate cause.

The proximate cause narrows liability in situations when there might be factual cause, but it wouldn’t make sense for the defendant to be held liable for the injury complained of. 

For this ambulance example, try the factual cause test: but for the hospital failing to send an ambulance within ten minutes, Ms. B would not have asked her friend to drive her and they would not have had to rush. But is that actually what caused the accident or was it more likely the speeding? It is difficult to argue that the hospital caused the accident. 

However, it is important to note that proximate cause requires sophisticated factual analysis according to the details of what has happened so it is best to consult with a lawyer.