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Causation: A Legal Definition

May 31, 2024 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

If you’ve been searching for information online after an injury, you’ve probably seen the term “causation” used in reference to personal injury law. You can get the basic idea of the word’s meaning from the root “cause” and from its context, but legal terms have very specific definitions. So let’s take a deeper look at the answer to the question: “What is causation in law?” 

In personal injury, the term causation means that someone’s negligent action directly led to harm. For example, if you were hit by a driver texting and driving, this neglect of duty demonstrates causation. By showing that the harm wouldn’t have happened without this action, you establish cause; in fact, you establish negligence. Another example is a slip and fall accident caused by a store’s failure to clean up a spill; this negligence directly leads to injury. Demonstrating that the store’s inaction was the cause, in fact, is crucial for establishing liability.

What Does Causation Mean?

In legal terms, causation refers to the relationship of cause and effect between one event or action and the result. It is the act or process that produces an effect.

In a personal injury case, you must establish causation—meaning that it’s not enough to show that the defendant was negligent. The negligence must be what caused the complainant’s injuries. Causation essentially means proof of negligence, which must be proven in two ways.

Causation Definition

Causation in negligence can be hard to determine because every negligence case is subjective. Causation is not always obvious, so there needs to be legal parameters to follow to determine the cause of the negligence. 

Because of the nuances, it’s important to work with an experienced attorney who understands both parts of causation. There are two facets to the causation definition:

  1. Cause-in-fact
  2. Proximate cause

Causation applies to both criminal law and tort law; causation tort law will look different than criminal cases, as each case varies; but causation still needs to be proven through evidence. 

Both parts of causation address the fact and nuance of situations where causation must be determined. In order to win a case, the victim needs to prove both types of causation. They are also both essential elements of a wrongful death case.

Cause-in-Fact Causation Definition

Cause-in-fact—also referred to as factual causation or actual cause—is the actual evidence, or facts of the case, that prove a party is at fault for causing the other person’s harm, damages, or losses. 

Cause-in-fact seeks to answer a question to the “but-for” test. The “but-for” test asks if the victim was harmed, was that harm directly caused by the defendant’s actions? Another way to think about it is like this: But for the existence of ABC, would XYZ have happened?

Regarding intent, if the defendant did cause the harm, it does not matter whether or not they intended to. Sometimes bad things happen regardless of a defendant’s motivation. Essentially, this type of causation lays out all of the facts of the case and who is responsible for each step of the event that caused harm.

Proximate Causation Definition

Unlike the fact-based timeline of factual causation, proximate causation is a trickier legal concept. This is because, technically, there is no clear definition, as it involves many moving parts. 

Proximate causation is about opinions and options that are not necessarily rooted in fact (cause-in-fact), but rather about finding out whether or not the injury would have occurred without the proximate cause. 

Proximate causation asks the question:

Is it reasonable that the defendant knew their actions could and would cause harm?

Proximate causation needs to be a direct cause of the harm that was done. It cannot be anything coincidental or abnormal. It also cannot be foreseeable. 

This may seem simple—like in drunk driving cases—but it is far from it. For example, if a person was intoxicated and drove, hitting someone, the driver should have reasonably foreseen that driving drunk can cause accidents to another person. However, cases ever so straightforward. 

Suppose someone slips on ice outside of a store that should have had an employee clear their walkway. As the individual who slipped still lies on the ground, a car swerves off of the road onto the sidewalk and hits them, causing traumatic brain injury. The store could not have anticipated that a car would swerve off the road at the same time that their lack of shoveling caused someone to slip.

Example of Causation in Negligence

Suppose a homeowner leaves the gate surrounding their backyard pool unlocked. A child opens the gate, falls into the pool, and drowns. The homeowner’s negligent action caused the accident; therefore, causation could be established. 

However, if a child climbed over the fence at the other end of the pool, fell into the pool and drowned, the homeowner would not be liable. Although there was negligence in both examples, the negligence in this case did not cause the child’s accident. The accident would have happened even if the gate had been locked.

As you can see, the facts, intentions, and awareness of possible harm all matter. They can also be difficult to determine. Because of the law of causation, it is important to work with a knowledgeable attorney who can build a strong case for both factual and proximate causation. 

If you have been injured, it may be obvious to you who is at fault. Yet, all cases come with their own nuances and can get complicated quickly. Talk to the attorneys at WKW today so that we can work towards getting you the justice that you deserve.

Contact the Experienced Attorneys at WKW

The attorneys at Wilson Kehoe Winingham are here to represent you when you have been involved in a situation where someone else acted with negligence. We have the experience, knowledge, and resources to build a strong case and get you justice. The person responsible for your injury needs to be held accountable. 

If you find yourself hurt because of someone else’s negligence, call the experienced attorneys at WKW at 317.886.1924 or fill out our online contact form today. We look forward to hearing from you!

And if you have any additional questions about causation or other legal terms, take a look at our legal dictionary.

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