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Personal Injury And Negligence 101 – Causation

By Andrew R. Bronsnick

In this series, we’re looking at what you must prove to succeed with a personal injury claim based on negligence. In an earlier blog, we looked at the duty of care. In a subsequent blog, we’ll examine the concept of “actual loss.” This blog looks at the requirement that there be a causal link between the defendant’s breach of duty and the accident that caused your losses.

To successfully demonstrate the required connection between the defendant’s conduct and your injuries, you must show two specific causal relationships—you must show actual, or “but for” cause; and you must show proximate cause.

Actual Cause


Actual, or “but for” cause, can seem like a simple concept. It asks the question “would the accident have occurred “but for” the breach of duty by the defendant.” Where there’s a single defendant and a single cause of the accident, the answer is usually pretty straightforward. However, when there are multiple potential causes, or when the injury party actually contributed to the accident, this can become more complicated. For example, if the defendant ran a red light, but the injured party was traveling far in excess of the speed limit, the defendant may make an argument that, but for the plaintiff’s excessive speed, running the red light might have had no negative consequences.

Proximate Cause


Proximate cause is a somewhat higher standard, and looks at whether or not the losses suffered could be reasonably anticipated or expected as a consequence of the defendant’s negligence. Essentially, it looks at the proximity, or closeness, of the negligence to the loss. For example, if a person runs a stop sign, it’s reasonable to expect that he or she will collide with another vehicle. But if the collision causes the other vehicle to careen into a fire hydrant, which bursts and floods a neighbor’s basement, damage to collectible items stored in the basement may not be reasonably foreseeable, and may not be compensable.

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