Causation is an essential element of any personal injury claim. No matter how negligent the defendant may have been, you have no case without causation.
In fact, you have no case against the defendant, even if they acted intentionally with malicious intent. Sometimes, the causation requirement can lead to counterintuitive results that some find offensive.
For example, suppose a drunken motorist runs down a small child, killing the child. Suppose further that the defendant’s lawyer proves that the child was chasing a ball and that they darted in front of the defendant’s car so fast that the child would have been killed even if the driver had been sober.
For the purposes of this example, we’ll assume that the defendant did nothing else wrong – meaning they were obeying all traffic laws and were otherwise driving safely.
In this case, there is no causation. The driver cannot be charged with manslaughter or wrongful death because their intoxication (which was their only negligent behavior) did not cause the accident. The most the legal system can do is charge the driver with DUI. To establish causation, the at-fault party’s negligent actions or inactions must be linked to the accident.
The Two Forms of Causation
To win a personal injury case, you must prove two forms of causation: cause in fact and proximate cause. Cause in fact is relatively easy to prove in most instances, while proximate cause is more difficult to prove.
Cause in Fact
Many people refer to cause in fact as “but for” causation. What this means is that the injury would not have happened but for the defendant’s action or failure to act. Suppose the defendant leaves a pair of roller skates on the top step of a stairwell. Suppose further that you slip on the skates, fall down the stairs, and break your hip. But for the defendant’s failure to remove the skates from the stairs, your injury probably would not have occurred.
Alternatively, suppose that although the defendant left a pair of roller skates at the top of the stairs, you did not step on them. Instead, you stepped and fell because you were intoxicated after drinking a large amount of wine. Even though the defendant’s act of leaving a pair of roller skates at the top of the stairs was negligent, it did not cause your accident. Consequently, cause in fact was absent, and you cannot win a personal injury claim against the defendant.
Once you prove cause in fact, you have one other task: to prove proximate cause. Proximate cause is based on foreseeability. The question is, would a “reasonable person” have foreseen that the defendant’s act (or failure to act) would have caused you injury?
It doesn’t matter whether the defendant actually foresaw the injury. All that matters is whether a hypothetical “reasonable person” would have foreseen it.
Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company
Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company is the premier case illustrating proximate cause that every law student learns before graduation. In that case, two railroad employees tried to push a commuter onto a train that was leaving the station. This caused the passenger to drop the package they were carrying.
It just so happened that the package contained explosives, and it exploded when the passenger dropped it. The explosion injured a woman standing a great distance away. The woman sued the railroad for the negligence of their employees. The court found for the railroad, ruling that a proximate cause was lacking – a reasonable person would not have foreseen that pushing a commuter onto a train would injure a woman standing so far away.
How Causation Fits Into a Negligence Claim
Negligence claims are the most common type of personal injury claim. Causation is critical to proving negligence liability. It is not always an issue because sometimes causation is easy to prove. In other cases, causation is the key to proving liability. Following are the five elements you need to prove to win a negligence claim:
- Duty of care: Every mentally competent adult has a duty to use “common sense” to avoid injuring others. Even a child above a certain age bears a certain level of responsibility. A professional, such as a physician, owes a much higher duty when practicing their profession.
- Breach of duty: Sometimes, a duty of care requires you to do something, such as to inspect your property for dangerous conditions that might injure a guest. Other times the duty requires you not to do something, such as to refrain from driving faster than the speed limit. The defendant breaches their duty of care when they fail to meet the demands of your duty of care through wrongful act or omission.
- Injury: The complainant must suffer a physical injury, although they can recover for psychological harm (non-economic damages) once they prove a physical injury.
- Cause in fact: Cause in fact is the link between breach of duty and the injury. In other words, your injury must result from the defendant’s breach of duty and not from some other cause.
- Proximate cause: Colorado law does not hold defendants liable for injuries that a reasonable person could not have foreseen, even if the accident would not have happened but for the defendant’s negligence.
An experienced attorney can help you establish each of these elements for your case.
Contact a Denver Personal Injury Lawyer for Help Proving Causation in Your Case
If you have a personal injury claim, don’t simply assume that you can prove causation. It might turn out to be trickier than you think. An experienced Denver personal injury lawyer will be familiar with every major causation issue and everything that could go wrong in proving it. Schedule a free initial consultation with a lawyer to discuss your options.