Links in the Chain of Causation
Brian White | January 29, 2021 | Personal Injury
For any number of reasons, many people believe that recovering compensation after an accident with injury is a quick and easy process. Although an injured victim may be entitled to compensation under the law, they still have the burden of proving their injuries.
Perhaps even more importantly, an injured person, called the plaintiff, has to prove that the other party, called the defendant, caused the injury by their actions or failure to act. How can a person prove causation in a negligence claim after an accident?
The process of proving causation has four (4) steps that can be thought of like links in a chain. Here are the links in the chain of causation. Before a discussion of the links in the chain of causation, a brief explanation of legal causation is in order.
What is Legal Causation?
In proving legal cause, a plaintiff must prove both (1) cause-in-fact (direct cause) and (2) proximate cause. Let’s explore each element of legal cause separately.
What is Cause-in-Fact?
Cause-in-fact means that the defendant’s actions actually caused the plaintiff’s injury. It means that without the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff would not have suffered the injury in question.
Sometimes using what’s called the “but-for” test, to establish direct cause, the plaintiff must show that but for the defendant’s actions, the injury in question would not have occurred. If the injury would have happened anyway, then the plaintiff will not be able to show the defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the injury.
What is Proximate Cause?
Proximate cause looks at how closely connected the injury is to the act that allegedly caused it. In particular, the element of proximate cause considers whether the injury in question was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s actions.
Like a domino effect, injuries that are more closely related to, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of, a certain act, are more likely to establish proximate cause, while injuries that are farther away from the reasonably expected outcomes may not support a finding of proximate cause.
What Are the Links in the Chain of Causation?
Now let’s get into the four (4) links in the chain of causation. We will use the example of a slip-and-fall accident to demonstrate the links.
Link Between Breach and Hazard
To establish cause related to a slip-and-fall, a plaintiff must first establish that the defendant breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiff. The duty of care requires each person to act in the way that a reasonable person would act in the same situation. Failure to exercise reasonable care can be a breach, or violation, of the duty of care.
In slip-and-fall cases, and many premises liability cases, the breach of duty of care relates to a hazard. A hazard is a risk or danger that a certain event will occur.
For example, certain acts or failures to act can create unreasonably dangerous conditions.
Some examples of acts or failures that would establish the link between breach and hazard in a slip-and-fall or premises liability case include:
- Inadequate inspection of the property
- Inadequate maintenance of the property
- Failure to warn of the dangers present on the property
Property owners have a duty of care to those present on their property. This means that property owners have a responsibility to anyone on their property to protect them from harm. Any acts or failure to act that puts those present on the property at risk of danger or harm can be a breach of the duty.
Link Between Hazard and Accident
Let’s assume that the property owner failed to adequately inspect their property, which is a supermarket. As a result of the failure to inspect the property adequately, a puddle forms underneath a drip. The puddle creates a risk of danger to anyone walking by it.
But a puddle inside the supermarket would not create a link to an accident on the front step of the store. Instead, a handrail missing due to inadequate maintenance would be required to establish the link between a fall down the front step of the grocery store and the property owner’s duty to maintain the premises in a safe condition.
Link Between Accident and Injury
We can also consider this scenario in a bowling alley: a legally blind bowler walks up to the bowling lane. She winds up and releases the ball at the edge of the lane and scores a strike. On her way back to her seat, she slips on the steps and reaches for the handrail, which is broken. The handrail, and the bowler, fall to the ground.
Does this scenario establish the third link in the chain of causation? Not quite. If the bowler sustains an injury as a result of her fall, then the next link is joined.
However, if the bowler does not sustain any injuries, the property owner’s lax maintenance does not link to the injury.
What if the bowler sustains an injury in her wrist? To make the next link in the chain of causation, she will need to show that the fall caused the wrist injury, as opposed to a repetitive motion strain caused by… bowling.
Link Between Injury and Damages
Even if there is a link between the accident and injury, there’s still one more link to close: the link between injury and damages. To prove damages, an injured person must show that their injury led to a loss of some type, whether economic or non-economic.
For example, lost wages or medical bills that are directly connected to the injury. As in, an injured person missed work because of their broken wrist after a slip-and-fall accident. Likewise, the link between medical bills and the injury sustained must be shown.