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Understanding Causation in a Personal Injury Case

| Mar 2, 2015 | Firm News

One of the most important concepts in any personal injury case is the element of causation. In the most basic sense, cause is something that produces a certain outcome. In a case where you have been injured by the actions (or omissions) of another and want to recover compensation from this injury, you must prove that the injury was caused by the conduct of another. An entire case may hinge upon the issue of causation and will be aggressively contested by the parties.

Under California law, there are two basic ways to analyze and test for causation, (1) the but-for test, and (2) the legal cause test. Under the but-for test, the following is tested: but for the defendant’s conduct, the outcome would not have occurred. An easy way to analyze this question is to insert the specific details of the case. For example, but for the defendant’s conduct (throwing a punch) then the outcome (my broken nose) would not have occurred.

The second test is the legal cause test, which examines whether the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the outcome. This test incorporates the but-for test and a secondary concept of proximate cause in order to analyze if the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury.

Proximate cause can be difficult to understand.  The best way to think about proximate cause is to think of cause being a continuum. On one end you have direct cause, a direct cause is something that directly results in the outcome. On the other end is remote cause; legally, a remote cause is too removed or remote to be considered a legal cause. Proximate cause falls somewhere in between the two poles.

In order to better understand causation, consider the following examples of the different types of causes analyzed under the two tests.

(1)    Direct Cause: Let’s assume that you were run over by a car while crossing the street because a driver ran a red light. The direct cause of your injury was being struck by the car. To assess under the but-for test, plug in the specific facts of this case; but-for the driver running the red light, you would not have been run over by the car. Causation can be established.

(2)    Substantial Factor: Now assume that a car accident has occurred between a car and truck with a trailer attached. The trailer holds motorcycles which are supposed to be properly strapped down onto the trailer. Just prior to the accident, the motorcycles began moving around the trailer. The driver was then distracted at the sight of motorcycles moving in the trailer behind him. An employee of the motorcycle dealership was responsible for securing the motorcycles and he failed to securely strap the motorcycles down to the trailer. Thus, the actions of the motorcycle dealership employee are a substantial factor in the eventual car accident.

(3)    Superseding Cause: In some instances, an intervening act of a third party may be the immediate cause of the accident. If a superseding cause can be established, this superseding cause will break the causal chain and that actor will be legally liable for the outcome. The following is an example of a superseding cause case. An individual is injured when an employee of a chemical plant throws sulfuric acid into her face. The individual sues the employer on the theory that the employer is liable for the supervision of their employees. The employee who threw the sulfuric acid had stolen the acid from a chemical storage closet. The employee’s criminal actions in stealing the acid were deemed to be unforeseeable and broke the causal chain. Therefore a superseding cause was established in the employee’s actions.

(4)    Concurrent Cause: In certain instances, two or more causes may jointly trigger an outcome. Concurrent cause is different from superseding cause, because there is no break in the chain and both parties may be legally liable for the outcome. The following is an example of a concurrent cause case. A car is rear ended and the front-seat passenger is injured from the accident. Prior to the accident, the passenger failed to put on his seat belt. This failure to put on the seat belt is a concurrent cause. It does not resolve liability of the driver who caused the accident, but it is also concurrent cause in the eventual outcome.

Determining causation of a particular accident can be complicated.  If you or a loved one has been involved in an accident caused by another, contact the experienced San Diego personal injury attorneys at Martinez & Schill LLP.  Our personal injury attorneys are experienced in determining causation in a particular accident and may be able to offer insight into potentially culpable parties.  We don’t get paid until we recover compensation on your behalf, so call today for a free consultation.  San Diego 619-512-5995 or Riverside 951-200-4630.