Proximate Cause vs. Actual Cause of an Injury

June 27, 2022 | Article by Chain | Cohn | Clark staff

If you are injured in California because of someone else’s negligence, you may be entitled to recover compensation. You can file a personal injury claim to hold the liable party accountable and receive damages that will help cover any resulting expenses. 

Somewhere in the personal injury lawsuit process you will be required to determine who is at fault and why.In a California injury case, there are two types of causes that you should be familiar with: actual and proximate. 

What Is Actual Cause in a Personal Injury Case?

An actual cause, also called a factual cause or the cause-in-fact, is the actual action which caused an accident. This is the real world event which resulted in an injury. 

Example of Actual Cause 

In a car accident case, the actual cause would be the collision between the two vehicles. Your leg is broken because it was crushed between two pieces of metal. Your back hurts because it hit the ground when you fell. You are sick because you ate meat that was not properly prepared or cooked.

Cause and effect is a long linear relationship that can go back infinitely. Actual cause represents the step directly preceding the injuries.

What Is Proximate Cause in a Personal Injury Case?

Proximate causation refers to an event being generally responsible for an accident, meaning the proximate cause is the agreed upon reason for resulting injuries and/or damages. This goes one step further than actual cause. 

One of the primary functions of a personal injury attorney is to find the proximate cause of an accident. This involves investigating the injury along with arguing that the accident would not have occurred if it weren’t for the proximate cause. 

When determining whether or not a cause is proximate, an attorney will ask the following questions:

  • Could the injury have been prevented by the defendant?
  • Is the severity of the injury at the level that was expected?
  • Was the way the injury happened foreseeable?
  • Could the plaintiff/victim have expected they were going to be injured?

The injured party must prove there was no assumption of risk and no other cause which led to the accident. There must be a direct connection between the sustained injuries and the negligence of the liable party. Whether or not an event is the proximate cause is typically determined through the use of the “but for” or “substantial factor” test. 

The “But For” Test for Proximate Cause

When defining the proximate cause of a personal injury case, some states subject it to the “but for” rule. This test looks to discover if the injury would not have happened but for the negligent action or omission of the defendant. If the findings can prove that an injury would not have happened without the defendant’s action, that action becomes the proximate cause. 

The “Substantial Factor” Test for Proximate Cause

Other states prefer to use the “substantial factor” rule, which is slightly more vague. Under this test, the court will be responsible for determining whether or not the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the injury. 

A substantial factor is any factor which makes a material contribution to the occurrence of an injury. That means it has causative effects in operation until the injury occurs. If the contribution to the injury is trivial and not substantial, it will not be considered the proximate cause. 

Foreseeability as a Factor

The last important part of determining proximate cause is the foreseeability of an injury as a result of negligence. Simply put, do the injuries make sense as a result of what happened. 

If a driver is drunk and hits a pedestrian, the proximate cause of that accident is the drunk driver. It can be assumed that the pedestrian would not have been hit if the driver wasn’t drunk. Additionally, a pedestrian being hit is a foreseeable outcome of a reckless drunk driver. That drunk driver can be held responsible for damages by the plaintiff. 

If a drunk driver crashes on the side of the road and half the street is closed by police, then a pedestrian is hit because another driver swerves onto the sidewalk to avoid crashing into oncoming traffic, that drunk driver is not the proximate cause. It is not foreseeable that after the drunk driver had already crashed, another driver would hit a pedestrian as a result. Since these ramifications of the accident were totally unforeseeable, the pedestrian cannot recover damages from the drunk driver. It should be noted, however, that the drunk driver will still face legal consequences, and the pedestrian may still be able to press charges against the driver that came onto the sidewalk. 

Example of Proximate Cause

The proximate cause of a car accident could be a variety of things—bad weather, a drunk driver, poor road signage, etc. In our linear cause and effect relationship, proximate cause represents the event that, if it would not have occurred, the accident would not have happened. It skips over the actual cause and links the resulting injury to the initial turning point. 

Your leg is broken because another driver ran a red light. Your back hurts because the local grocery store did not put up a wet floor sign. You are sick because the food you ate wasn’t cooked properly by the chef. 

Both proximate and actual causes are events that led to the plaintiff’s injuries; they are just different stages of the overall sequence. Lawyers tend to focus on proximate cause, as those are more likely to involve another person’s negligence. 

The Difference Between Proximate Cause and Actual Cause

Actual and proximate cause together provide a snapshot of the entire accident. More specifically, the proximate cause is cited as the reason for the actual cause of injuries or death. So the event which causes an injury is the actual cause, and the cause of that event is the proximate cause. We know it’s complicated. That’s why we have a team of experienced attorneys who can help guide you through the process. 

How Can a Lawyer Help Prove Causation?

Causation in a negligence case is not as simple as creating a link between two events. If you hope to recover compensation in a personal injury or car accident lawsuit, you need to prove that the defendant’s negligent action or omission was the main cause of your injury. Beyond establishing a strong case for the proximate cause, you must also prove that other factors were not the cause of the injury. 

For example, you are driving an old vehicle on a rainy night and another motorist comes around a curve too fast. They slide into your lane and collide with your car, breaking some of your bones and sending you both onto the road’s shoulder. There were no witnesses, and emergency responders show up a few minutes later and rush you to the hospital before you can give a comprehensive police report. 

When the authorities begin to ask you questions, they tell you that the other driver was intoxicated, but told police that you were also speeding and slid out of control when approaching the curve. Even though you know that the drunk driver was completely at fault and unable to control their vehicle, you may find yourself facing a comparative negligence settlement. 

A good lawyer will help to establish that you did not make any mistakes and furthermore show how the other driver erred. By recreating the scene of the accident, attorneys can gain insight into the physics of how things must have happened to lead to the end result. 

Your location off the side of the road and the direction of skid marks might indicate that the other driver was moving much faster than you were. An attorney will look for situations in which you’ve previously operated your vehicle in bad weather conditions, and track down the receipt which shows you recently got new brakes even though you have an older vehicle. 

Chain | Cohn | Clark Will Help You Determine a Proximate Cause

Even though you may know that you did nothing wrong, proving it can be challenging. At Chain | Cohn | Clark, we have extensive connections in Bakersfield and the surrounding area that we will use to help you. This includes working with relevant experts and other professionals who can help us recreate your personal injury accident exactly how it happend. We also have access to up-to-date technology which helps us visualize collisions and present them to insurance companies. 

Reach out to the lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Clark for help defining the proximate cause of your injuries. Call us at (661) 334-4948 or fill out our online form to start your case.