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Hello, I’m attorney Kyle Bachus. The legal world is full of overly complicated jargon and terminology that can be intimidating if you don’t know what it means. In my law 101 video series, I’m breaking down some commonly used legal terms so you can be informed and confident should you ever need to take legal action.

In this episode of law 101, we’re going to break down a term in the legal world called proximate cause. In other videos, we talked about causation or cause, in fact, and demonstrated an injury.

Proximate cause is an entirely different animal. In fact, the name really doesn’t even fit what this word means in the legal world. Proximate cause has to do with something called foreseeability of injury. Well, that seems complicated. Let me explain. Let’s say that you’re riding in a car, and somebody rear-ends you, and they cause a back injury to you. That is a foreseeable event, and therefore you can bring a claim, a civil claim for foreseeable injury, all right? Let me take another example that I hope will make this make a lot more sense to you.

Let’s say, on the other hand; you’re driving to a job interview, alright? And the person who is behind you, they don’t know that you’re on your way to a job interview. They hit the back of your car. In addition to your back injury, they cause you to miss the job interview. And that was a job interview that was going to pay you $100,000 a year, and you’re sure you were going to get that job. The question is, can you recover for the loss of the job from the person who rear-ended you?

And the legal question, is it foreseeable that if somebody rear-ends you in a car, that you’re on your way to a job interview and you’re not going to get the job, and it could cost you $100,000? Is it a foreseeable consequence of their driving too closely to the back of your car, to be responsible financially for this attenuated outcome, right? Under the law, probably not. It’s probably not foreseeable, and therefore the rear-ending was not the proximate cause; just substitute the word foreseeable for proximate cause.

It’s probably not foreseeable that you’re going to lose a job if you get rear-ended. And therefore, the legal system would likely not allow the person who was rear-ended to recover for this loss of earnings from this job interview. You could recover for the back because it’s foreseeable that if you get rear-ended, it’s going to hurt your back; you’re right there. But the attenuated circumstance is probably not foreseeable, and will not be judged to be a proximate cause. The more attenuated it is from the actual event, the less likely that you’re actually going to be able to recover for it in the court system.

That’s proximate cause. If you have an event where somebody has caused injury to you, and you have some sort of attenuated consequence, and you have questions about whether that’s a recoverable, foreseeable result of the negligence of the person who caused the injury, reach out to Bachus & Schanker, and we’re happy to talk to you about it personally. And to learn more about other law topics that can help you feel informed and confident about the law, make sure to check out more videos in this series.


doctor looking at leg injury

According to the Legal Information Institute (LII), the definition of proximate cause is “an actual cause that is also legally sufficient to support liability.” In other words, proximate cause is when the actual cause was foreseeable that caused an injury.

Let’s assume you are a pedestrian crossing the street and the indicator light says to cross. However, a car makes a left-hand turn and hits you as you cross the street. 

As such, this was a foreseeable accident because had they yielded the right of way, you would have never been injured. Therefore, you can file a civil suit for a proximate cause injury claim.

When a person owes you a duty of care and fails to act or not act to prevent the injuries, and their actions were the direct cause of your injuries, then they are deemed negligent due to proximate cause.

empty juror box in court

Proximate cause can be hard to apply in court because different approaches can be used to establish the link between the injury and the responsibility of the defendant. Using our example where you were hit as you crossed the street, let’s assume you were on your way to purchase a PowerBall ticket. If you were not hit crossing the street, you would have won the jackpot. 

Now, is the person who hit you responsible for the millions of dollars you did not win? Would you not winning the PowerBall be considered proximate cause? What if the person who hit you knew you would win? What if they were trying to injure you deliberately? 

We could continue asking other questions that can make it more challenging to determine whether proximate cause was present and to which events it applies. 

Actual cause is where a person’s actions are deemed to be the direct cause of your injuries. For example, a bus driver fails to stop and hits you as you cross the street when you have the right away. The bus driver failing to stop in time was the actual cause of your injuries.

Whereas proximate cause is when the person’s actions are closely related to the cause of your injuries, that had they provided a duty of care, they would not have occurred. 

The “but for” test is used to determine proximate cause. The question usually asked is would the accident or injury occur “but for” the action of the other party. Based on the definition from LII, you would ask, “but for the existence of X, would Y have occurred?”

The substantial factor test is another to help determine whether an individual is responsible for your injuries. This test looks at all potential causes for your injuries and determines whether any could be considered a substantial cause. 

For instance, using the earlier example with the bus driver hitting you as you crossed the street, let’s assume the bus was approaching the interaction, but you were looking down at your phone and not paying attention. Had you looked up from your phone, you would have realized the bus was going too fast to stop before you started crossing the street.

Since your actions also contributed towards your injuries, the “but for” test would not be able to be applied. Instead, the substantial factor test would demonstrate that the bus driver’s inability to stop in time was a substantial factor in the cause of your injuries. 

Causation in proximate cause is establishing and proving that an individual’s actions were the cause for your injuries. 

To show proximate cause in personal injury cases, you must have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the defendant’s actions were foreseeable and would result in your injuries. 

personal injury lawyer holding clients hand at a table

Establishing and proving proximate cause in a personal injury lawsuit is complicated and complex, depending on the extent of your injuries, how they were caused, and other such factors. In addition, the defendant and their insurance company will have their own team of lawyers representing their interests to either fight your claim or have you settle for a meager amount.

Unfortunately, many people believe they can prove proximate cause and settle their injury claims on their own. It is only later they discover they were entitled to a much higher settlement and would have received thousands to tens of thousands, or even millions of dollars, had they had assistance from an experienced personal injury attorney.


Proximate Cause.
But-For Test. (2022).
What Are But For and Substantial Factor Causation? (2015)