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What Is Proximate Cause

What is Proximate Cause

What Is Proximate Cause

If you’ve been reading about personal injury law, you have likely come across the term ‘proximate cause’ quite a bit. But what does it mean? How does it work? And what contexts does it apply to? We’ll answer all those questions and offer some proximate cause examples in this article.

What is the proximate cause in negligence?

  • Proximate cause is a legal concept that refers to the causal relationship between an act and a resulting injury. 
  • It focuses on determining whether a person’s actions were the direct cause of another person’s injuries and whether those injuries were reasonably foreseeable.

Need some context? Take a look at this example.

Anne Smith owns a single detached home on a street with 20 other properties. One day, she negligently starts a fire in her house, which eventually spreads to the rest of the homes on the block.

In a case like this, the issue of proximate cause would be used to determine whether Mrs. Smith should be held liable for the fires in all 20 houses. While she did start the fire that spread to the other properties, it might not be fair to pin the entire blame on her.

After all, the other homeowners should have had working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in their homes. And the fire department should have been able to contain the blaze before it did too much damage.

So, while Mrs. Smith might be the specific reason for the fire, she isn’t the only factor that had a hand in the other 20 houses on her street burning down. This gives her some protection against being held entirely liable.

What do you need to establish a proximate cause?

For proximate cause to be established, there must be two factors present: causation in fact and foreseeability.


Causation-in-fact is also known as ‘but for’ causation. This means that, but for the act that was committed, the injury would not have occurred.

To put it another way, causation-in-fact establishes a cause-and-effect relationship between the act and the injury.

For example, let’s say that Anne Smith was driving down the street and ran a red light, hitting another car. The other driver was injured in the accident.

Causation-in-fact would be established if it can be proven that, but for Mrs. Smith running the red light, the other driver would not have been injured. In other words, there is a direct link between Mrs. Smith’s actions and the other driver’s injuries.


The second element of proximate cause is foreseeability. This means that the person who committed the act must have known or should have known that their actions could result in the type of injury that occurred.

For example, let’s say Anne Smith was once again driving down the street, but this time in accordance with traffic signals. Out of the blue, a pedestrian runs into the street, and Anne hits them with her car. The pedestrian is injured.

In this case, causation in fact would be established because, but for Anne hitting the pedestrian with her car, the pedestrian would not have been injured.

However, foreseeability would not be established because Anne could not have reasonably known that a pedestrian would run into the street, and she would hit them.

Proximate Cause vs. Actual Cause

It’s important to understand the difference between proximate cause and actual cause. Actual cause is also known as ‘but for’ causation, which we discussed above. This simply establishes a cause-and-effect relationship between an act and an injury.

The proximate cause goes one step further. Not only does it establish a cause-and-effect relationship, but it also determines whether the person who committed the act should be held liable for the injury.

Factors that can affect proximate cause

There are a number of different factors that can affect the proximate cause. These include:

The foreseeability of the injury – If the injury was not reasonably foreseeable, a proximate cause might not be established.

The type of injury – The type of injury can also affect the proximate cause. For example, if the injury is physical, it may be easier to establish a proximate cause than if the injury is emotional.

The type of act – The type of act that was committed can also play a role in the proximate cause. For example, if the act was an accident, it may be more difficult to establish a proximate cause than if it was intentional.

The relationship between the parties – The relationship between the parties can also be a factor. For example, if the person injured is a close family member of the person who committed the act, the proximate cause may be more difficult to establish because of the emotional connection between the parties.

Proximate cause is an important legal concept that can affect whether or not someone is held liable for an injury. It’s important to understand the elements of proximate cause and how they can affect a case. If you have any questions about proximate cause or liability, you should speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer.

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