Most personal injury cases are based on negligence claims. Causation is a crucial legal element required to prove a party’s negligent conduct caused your injuries and damages. If you cannot prove causation, you cannot establish liability to recover compensation for a personal injury claim.
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Causation as an Element of a Negligence Claim
Negligence is the failure to act with the level of care that a reasonable person would use under similar circumstances. You must prove causation to establish negligence. The chain of causation links the defendant’s act to the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
In other words, the concept of causation is the causal chain between an action or event and the consequences of the action or event. For example, a motorist fails to stop at a red light, enters an intersection, and collides with another vehicle.
The motorist’s failure to stop for the red light is the cause of the traffic accident. To establish the causal relationship, the victim must prove:
- The motorist owed the victim a duty of care to obey traffic laws to avoid accidents
- The motorist breached the duty of care by running a red light
- The motorist’s breach of duty caused the collision
- The traffic accident caused the victim’s injuries which resulted in damages
Establishing legal causation requires proving both direct and proximate causes for an injury or accident. Suppose an analysis of causation does not lead a jury to find the proximate and direct causes. In that case, the jury might not find that the defendant is financially liable for the plaintiff’s damages.
What Are Direct and Proximate Causes in a Personal Injury Case?
The theory of causation rests on proving both cause-in-fact (direct cause) and proximate cause.
Causation in law does not merely imply causation on its face.
Establishing Cause in Fact for a Personal Injury Claim
Cause in fact or actual cause is the “but for” test in the theory of causation. It requires that you prove the defendant’s conduct was a direct cause of your injuries and damages. In other words, had the defendant not acted in the manner he did, you would not have been injured.
For example, a doctor leaves a sponge inside of you during the surgery. You develop an infection after surgery because of the sponge and require additional surgery and treatment. Had it not been for the doctor leaving the sponge inside of you, you would not have developed the infection.
The doctor’s negligence in leaving a foreign object inside your body was the “direct” or “actual” cause of your injury.
Establishing Proximate Cause for a Personal Injury Claim
Proximate cause is different from actual or direct cause. It deals with the defendant’s “reasonable” knowledge of the dangers and risks of their actions or conduct. A jury must decide whether a person of average common sense would have reasonably known their acts could injure or harm another person.
In our example above, a doctor would reasonably know that leaving a foreign object in a person’s body could cause harm. Likewise, a reasonable person would understand that driving under the influence could cause a DUI accident that might injure another person. A property owner could reasonably foresee that a broken step could cause a trip and fall injury.
In a personal injury case, people are not held liable for injuries unless they could have reasonably foreseen a causal link between their actions and injury to another person. They are generally not held liable for events and conditions beyond their control.
For example, a property owner might not be held liable if a drunk person stumbles over an object and breaks their leg. The property owner provided adequate lighting and warning signs. However, the owner could not reasonably foresee that a drunk person might ignore the warnings and fall.
However, there could be exceptions for strict liability cases, such as injuries caused by abnormally dangerous activities or product liability claims.
Contributory Fault and Causation in a Personal Injury Claim
Maryland adopted the harshest form of comparative negligence for personal injury cases. The Court of Appeals confirmed the standard in Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia.
Under Maryland’s contributory fault rules, if a victim contributes in any way to their injury, they cannot recover money for their damages from the other party. Even though you prove that the defendant’s conduct contributed to the cause of the plaintiff’s injury, the plaintiff’s partial blame for the cause of the injury bars recovery for damages.
Because of contributory fault, you must prove the other party was entirely responsible for the cause of your injury. Otherwise, you cannot recover any money for your injury claim.
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