What Is Causation in a Tort Claim? 

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What Is Causation in a Tort Claim? 

In tort law, “causation” refers to the nexus linking an act or omission by a defendant and the damages (or injuries) suffered by a plaintiff as alleged under a tort action. In a tort action, a plaintiff must prove the element of causation by establishing that the defendant’s actions led to the plaintiff’s injuries or damages. 

Two specific types of legal causes are thus carved out from this definition: “cause in fact” and “proximate cause.” Both of these legal causes must be established by the plaintiff in order to satisfy the causation element necessary to bring a tort claim. “Cause in fact” means that the defendant’s injuries actually did result in injury to the plaintiff. “Proximate cause” means that the defendant’s actions or omissions could foreseeably lead to the victim’s harm. 

What Are the Tests for Establishing Factual Causation?

What Are the Tests for Establishing Factual Causation?

There are two common conceptual tests used to determine the factual cause portion of the element of causation. First, the “but for” test is applied by determining if “but for” the defendant’s conduct, there would or would not have been injury suffered by the plaintiff. Secondly, the substantial factor test analyzes whether the defendant’s negligent conduct was a substantial factor in the plaintiff’s resulting injuries. 

The primary method of establishing factual causation is the but-for test. The but for test entails asking, ‘But for the defendant’s act, would the harm have occurred?’ For example, let’s say Person A shoots and wounds Person B. The question posed to the jury would be: “But for A’s action (shooting), would B have suffered an injury?” In this instance, the answer would be no. Thus, the jury may conclude that A’s actions factually caused B’s injuries. 

The substantial factor test may also be used in establishing the element of factual causation. In some cases, there are too many causes that technically meet the but-for test. In other cases, the but-for test is met, but the connection between the actions is tenuous at best. The substantial factor test aims to solve these sorts of problems.

Under the substantial factor test, the jury determines whether the defendant’s conduct is a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. For example, A decides to stop at a coffee shop before driving to work. After picking up their coffee, A hits B after deciding to run a just-turned-red light, resulting in a car accident

Here, A’s action of running the red light was a substantial factor resulting in B’s injury. Though A’s stopping at a coffee shop would likely meet the but-for test (because had A not made that stop, they probably would not have run into B), it’s not the sort of activity that should lead to A’s liability.

Is There a Test for Proximate Causation?

Yes. The foreseeability test is most commonly used to determine proximate causation. Proximate causation exists because if factual causation were the only form necessary to prove, too many parties could potentially be held liable for any given act. 

For instance, every liable party’s mother could also be held liable if factual causation were the only form required to prove. After all, but for the person’s mother giving birth to them, the person would not have caused the accident. That applies to virtually every case and doesn’t make much sense. That’s why proximate causation exists.

Under the foreseeability test, a jury must determine if it was foreseeable that the defendant’s acts or omissions would result in the plaintiff’s injuries. To use the above example, it is foreseeable that by running a red light, A might run into B’s vehicle and cause harm. But it’s not foreseeable that A’s mother giving birth to A would lead to A running into B’s vehicle. 

What Else Do I Need To Win a Tort Action?

Causation is just one element necessary to win a tort action. In addition to proving causation, a plaintiff must establish that there was (1) a duty of care, (2) a breach, and (3) damages or injury.  Causation is the connecting piece between the plaintiff’s injuries and the tortious actions or omissions by the defendant. To determine if you have a possible action in torts, contact a personal injury attorney from Winters & Yonker, P.A. for a free consultation.

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