Causation – Proximate Cause

Cite this article as:"Causation – Proximate Cause," in The Business Professor, updated January 9, 2015, last accessed May 26, 2020,
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Cause in Fact and Proximate Cause - Negligence
This video explains what is cause in fact and proximate causation in negligence.

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What is “Proximate Causation”?

Proximate causation means that the harm suffered by the defendant was reasonably foreseeable as a result of the plaintiff’s conduct. More specifically, for the type of injury to be foreseeable, the plaintiff must be one whom the defendant could reasonably expect to be injured by a negligence act. Further, the injury must be caused directly by the defendant’s negligence. The relationship between the defendant’s actions and the harm caused cannot be too far removed or tenuous. This may be the case when an unexpected intervening actor or occurrence is involved in bringing about the harm. It would breach the “chain of causation” necessary for finding a defendant negligent. This determination is left for the jury to decide.

Discussion: How do you feel about the “reasonably foreseeable” standard? What factors should influence what one determines to be reasonably foreseeable? Can you think of scenarios where the outcome would not occur without a person’s involvement, but the outcome is not reasonably foreseeable from her conduct? Should conduct that is reasonably foreseeable to result in a particular outcome give rise to liability, even if the outcome would have occurred without the individual’s involvement? Why or why not?

Practice Question: Jessica brings a box of fireworks on a train. While she is boarding, she trips and the box of fireworks explodes. The explosion shakes the loading platform violently. At the opposite end of the loading platform, a large vending machine falls over and injures a passenger. Is Jessica the proximate of the passenger’s injury? That is, does bringing fireworks on a train lead to a foreseeable risk that a distant, heavy object will fall over and hurt someone? Or, is the tall, heavy, inherently unstable design of the vending machine an intervening cause that negates proximate causation?

Proposed Answer

  • A proximate cause is any event that is sufficiently related to an injury that the courts deem it the type of injury that is reasonably foreseeable from the harmful conduct. Proximate cause means “legal cause” or one that the law recognizes as the primary cause of the injury. It may not be the first event that set in motion a sequence of events that led to an injury, and it may not be the very last event before the injury occurs. It is an action that produced foreseeable consequences without intervention from anyone else. The plaintiff must prove that the injuries were the natural and direct consequence of the unreasonable conduct, without which the injuries would not have occurred. In the practice question, Jessica is likely the proximate cause of the injuries that the passenger suffered. It is foreseeable that negligently handling explosive instruments on a train could cause and explosion that causes the structure or items on the structure to capsize and harm a passenger.

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