To win a personal injury claim, you must usually prove four legal elements:
In the State of New York as well as in virtually all jurisdictions, causation is an essential element of any personal injury or wrongful death claim – even for claims with legal elements that differ from the ones stated above.
To win a personal injury or wrongful death claim, you must connect the defendant with the victim’s injury by proving the existence of two different kinds of causation– (i) cause in fact and (ii) proximate cause.
Cause in fact is the actual cause of the accident. New York applies a “but for” test to most such determinations. If the accident would not have happened but for the defendant’s conduct, then cause in fact exists.
Cause in fact is not enough to establish personal injury liability on its own, however.
To establish causation, you must also prove proximate cause. The victim’s injuries must have been a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s conduct. An unforeseeable chain of events cannot support causation in a personal injury claim. Generations of US law students have learned the concept of proximate causation through the illustrative New York case Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, which was decided in 1928.
In that case, two railroad employees tried to help a commuter board a train that was already moving. Their attempts caused the commuter to drop his briefcase, which contained fireworks. The fireworks exploded, injuring a woman standing some distance away. The woman sued the railroad. The New York Court of Appeals eventually ruled against her on the grounds that her injury was unforeseeable and that therefore, she had not established proximate cause.
The rationale behind the proximate cause requirement is simple. New York does not want to hold people responsible for consequences that they could not have foreseen. Eliminating the proximate cause requirement could result in an explosion of lawsuits and liability that would ultimately harm everyone.
In almost all cases, cause in fact is a necessary (but insufficient) component of a successful personal injury or wrongful death claim. In certain cases, however, a court might allow a claim against a defendant whose wrongful behavior did not meet the “but for” legal test for cause in fact.
Suppose, for example, that two “hitmen” kill a victim by firing all of their respective bullets into the victim’s chest. Each defendant’s lawyer might assert that “Even if my client had not pulled the trigger, the other defendant’s bullets would have killed the victim anyway. You can’t say that ‘but for my client’s act, the victim would still be alive.”
Despite the fact that this lawyer’s statement is technically accurate, no court would accept such a defense. In legal parlance, this defense would violate the substantial factor rule. Under this rule, two or more defendants will face liability if their joint actions caused the victim’s harm, as long as their individual actions were sufficient to cause the same harm.
What happens when both the defendant and the victim bear some degree of responsibility for an accident? In such cases, New York applies a “pure comparative fault” system. Under this system, the court assigns each party a percentage of fault for the accident. Each party then loses that portion of their own damages that equals their own percentage of fault. If a car accident was 35% your fault, for example, you will lose 35% of your personal injury damages.
So how does the comparative fault system interact with the causation requirement? It might come into play if the actions of both the victim and the defendant contributed causation to the accident. Instead of determining whether causation was present or absent, a court might break causation down into percentages and assign a percentage of fault to each defendant for their role in causing the accident.
The question of whether causation in a given case was “proximate” is not always obvious. With many claims, it is a judgment call. It is those situations where an experienced lawyer’s clear thinking and persuasive arguments are more likely to decide the case. If your claim involves any significant amount of money, an experienced personal injury lawyer is a must.
Remember, almost any personal injury lawyer will charge you legal fees only if you win. Ultimately, it is the quality of your claim that matters – not the size of your bank account.