Understanding Intervening and Superseding Causes in Personal Injury Cases

Different theories of liability apply to different personal injury claims. The standards that apply to a negligence claim, for example, do not apply to a claim based on intentional misconduct. The facts you have to prove are different. 

In every case, however, you have to prove that the defendant’s misconduct caused your damages. You’ll need to prove both actual cause and proximate cause as well (more on these below). 

The problem is that Maryland personal injury law recognizes more than these forms of causation. Intervening cause and superseding cause are two of them. 

“Actual Cause“

“Actual Cause“

The actual cause of a personal injury is the link between the defendant’s misconduct and the victim’s injury.

If the victim can truthfully say, “I would not have been injured but for the defendant’s misconduct,” then the defendant’s misconduct was the actual cause of the victim’s injury.

The defendant ran a red light and hit your car, for example, causing you injury.

“Proximate Cause”

Proving actual cause is the first of two “proofs of cause” that a victim needs to win a personal injury case. The second step is proving proximate cause Once you establish actual cause, you establish proximate cause by proving that, given the defendant’s misconduct, a reasonable person could foresee the harm you suffered. 

Another way of looking at the question of proximate cause is whether the link between the defendant’s misconduct and the victim’s damages was direct enough to justify holding the defendant liable. 

The defendant should not bear liability for a freak accident, for example, even if they did commit misconduct. If it would have taken a genius to predict the accident from the misconduct that caused it, the defendant should not bear liability for the consequences.

In the car accident scenario described above, for example, the existence of proximate cause is fairly obvious, and the issue of causation should not prevent the defendant from bearing liability.

Intervening Cause and Superseding Cause: How To Resolve a Claim if There Was More Than One Cause of Your Injuries

Let’s go back to the car accident scenario described above. Suppose that the defendant ran a red light, but you swerved and managed to avoid them. But by swerving, you sideswiped a pedestrian who was lawfully crossing the street. The pedestrian was not seriously injured but suffered a heart attack from the shock, leading to a week in the hospital. 

The pedestrian sues the defendant (rather than you) for their heart attack on the assertion that the defendant’s running of the red light proximately caused their heart attack. The defendant, by contrast, might argue that causing a nearby pedestrian to suffer a heart attack is not a foreseeable consequence of running a red light.

Intervening Cause vs. Superseding Cause

An intervening cause or a superseding cause is a second event, occurring after the defendant’s original misconduct, that was involved in causing an accident. In the foregoing scenario, the pedestrian’s heart attack might constitute such a second event, leading to the pedestrian’s eventual damages (medical expenses, lost earnings, pain and suffering, and more). 

So, was the pedestrian’s heart attack an “intervening cause” or a “superseding cause” of their own injuries? How you characterize this depends on whether you believe that the pedestrian’s injury was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s original misconduct. 

It is highly fact-specific, and it can vary from case to case. The characterization matters because an intervening cause does not exonerate the defendant, but a superseding cause does.

Should the defendant have foreseen that running the red light might cause a pedestrian to suffer a heart attack?

  • If you say yes, then you would classify the pedestrian’s heart attack as a mere “intervening cause.” This would not prevent the defendant from bearing liability. 
  • If you say no, then you would be saying that the pedestrian’s heart attack was a superseding cause, not a mere intervening cause. Consequently, the defendant would be relieved of liability despite their misconduct. 

Courts and especially negotiating parties sometimes make up their minds about causation on an intuitive, common-sense basis. They assign sophisticated rationales like “intervening cause” to justify a decision that they have already made. 

Additionally, Maryland’s draconian contributory negligence law can relieve the defendant of liability regardless of the results of any causation analysis. 

Other Examples of Intervening Cause vs. Superseding Cause

There are an unlimited number of possible examples illustrating the fine line between intervening cause and superseding cause. Here are a few of them:

  • A driver runs a red light, causing another driver to swerve into a plate glass storefront. Later that night, someone burglarizes the store.
  • A company improperly stores chemicals. They leak into a stream. Miles downstream, a hiker drinks from the stream and falls ill. They get sick not from the chemicals, but from a thriving bacteria population enabled by the chemicals.
  • A homeowner fails to fix a hole in his fence. His dog escapes and chases a jogger. The jogger flees into the street and gets hit by a car.
  • A worker on the top of a building under construction carelessly leaves their tools lying around. A bird picks up one of them and drops in on a passing pedestrian below.
  • A restaurant employee mops the floor without putting up a “Wet Floor” sign. A customer slips and the floor and grabs a shelf to break their fall. The shelf collapses onto another customer.
  • A rural homeowner fails to secure his trash. The trash attracts raccoons, one of which runs into the street. A passing driver swerves into a telephone pole and suffers injury.
  • A city government fails to repair a pothole. A bicyclist hits the pothole, flies through the air, and hits a pedestrian crossing the street legally. 
  • An amusement park operator fails to properly maintain a “haunted house” attraction. The ride malfunctions and staff attempt to evacuate the guests. Panic ensues, resulting in a stampede that injures several guests.
  • A homeowner’s cat escapes and enters a neighbor’s house through the window. The neighbor, startled and hobbled by a phobia of cats, falls down a flight of stairs while trying to run away.
  • An electrical malfunction in a blender results in a fire at an apartment complex. The occupant of the apartment attempts to put out the fire with water, leading to a larger blaze that injures several people.

If you are unsure whether you are facing a causation issue, contact an attorney – these issues can be complex. 

You Probably Need a Baltimore Personal Injury Lawyer

As you can see from the foregoing explanation, causation issues can get complicated. If the value of your claim is significant, you wouldn’t want to sacrifice it because of a causation issue, would you? 

Set up a free consultation at (410) 837-2144 with, and hire, an experienced Baltimore personal injury lawyer from WGK Personal Injury Lawyers so that you don’t have to.