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The Difference Between Proximate and Actual Cause in a Personal Injury Case

Published on Oct 16, 2019 at 3:26 pm in Personal Injury.

Understanding the legal concepts surrounding a personal injury case can be overwhelming without the right legal counsel. Fortunately, the lawyers at DiPiero Simmons McGinley & Bastress, PLLC have years of experience in a wide array of personal injury cases. Whether you were injured in an automobile accident, on someone’s property, or by a doctor, we can examine your situation and help you determine how to proceed.

Every step of the way we’ll make sure you understand how your case is proceeding. This includes explaining legal terms and how they relate to you. When proving your accident resulted from another party’s negligence, we’ll use the terms “proximate” and “actual” cause. Let’s take a look at what those terms mean.

Proximate Cause vs. Actual Cause

To prove negligence in court, the plaintiff needs to show the other party’s breach of duty was both the actual and proximate cause of their injuries. To understand the difference between the causes, you first need to understand the concept of negligence.

Legally, there are four factors needed to prove negligence: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Duty refers to the obligation a person owes to someone else to not cause harm. When that duty if ignored or intentionally neglected, it’s considered a breach. Causation refers to how the breach caused the accident. Once that is proven, the plaintiff can focus on presenting the damages or losses they sustained as a result.

Part of proving the elements of negligence is showing the actual and proximate causes. An actual cause, also referred to as cause in fact, is the simpler of the two concepts. For example, if a texting driver strikes a motorcyclist, the driver’s actions caused the accident. Proximate cause, however, has to be determined by law as the primary cause of injury. So, without the proximate cause the injury would not exist. In that way, it’s considered an action that resulted in foreseeable consequences without intervention. With the auto accident example, distracted driving would be the proximate cause.

Understanding Proximate Cause in West Virginia

To determine if a cause is proximate, the following questions should be considered:

  • Could the defendant have foreseen the type of harm inflicted?
  • Is the severity of the injury foreseeable?
  • Is the manner in which the injuries occurred foreseeable?
  • Could the plaintiff have foreseen that they would have been injured by the defendant’s actions?

According to §55-7-13a, in West Virginia comparative fault can only be proven when proximate cause exists. Comparative fault in West Virginia is modified. This means that the amount of damages a person can recover is contingent upon their percentage of the fault. If, for example, a premises liability victim was found to be at fault for 20% of their accident, they would only be able to seek compensation for 80% of their losses.

Examples of Proximate Cause in a Personal Injury Case

If injuries only occurred because of the actions a person took, proximate causation is present. For example, if a driver injures another after running a red light and hitting a car that had a green light, the driver had a duty to not run the red like. Their actions directly, therefore proximately, caused the injuries to the other driver.

Not all personal injury cases, however, have a proximate cause. If, for example, the driver discussed above swerved to miss the negligent driver but later crashed a few blocks away because of a stress reaction from the almost-accident, the cause of their accident would be remote.

The “But For” and “Substantial Factor” Tests

When the proximate cause isn’t evident, there are two tests states use. The “but for” test looks at what would have happened if the probable cause wasn’t present. For example, if a distracted driver strikes another vehicle and causes those occupants to suffer injuries, but for that driver operating intoxicated, the crash would not have happened. It was reasonably foreseeable that the drunk driver would hit another car.

The substantial factor looks at anything that materially contributes to an injury. If an employee was lifting heavy objects by himself and was injured, but also regularly played contact sports, it might be difficult to determine both the actual and proximate cause of the injury. The employee, however, could argue that lifting heavy objects was a substantial factor in worsening their injuries.

Seek Justice for Your Injuries

If you’re ready to file a personal injury claim in West Virginia, our attorneys are here for you. We’ll make the process easier for you, so you can place more focus on recovering and getting your life back in order. To learn more about how we can help you seek compensation for your accident-related losses, contact our office today.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice. Viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Prior case results do not guarantee a similar outcome.
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