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Causation is one of the elements you must prove to succeed in your personal injury claim. A court will only award you compensation if the defendant’s conduct caused your injuries and other damages.

The four elements you must show in a negligence case are:

A two-part test is used to determine legal causation. You must show that the other party’s conduct was both the cause-in-fact and the proximate cause of your injuries. If either of the tests is not proven, you won’t be able to prove that the other party is legally responsible for your damages.


Cause-in-FactTo show cause-in-fact, you must apply the “but for” test. You must show that “but for” the defendant’s actions, your injuries would not have occurred. Application of this test is usually straightforward.

When a person runs a red light and causes a car accident, their actions were clearly the cause-in-fact of any resulting injuries. If they had not driven through the red light, no one would have been hurt.

Cause-in-fact can also apply in cases involving a chain reaction of events. If a negligent driver rear-ends a truck and causes the truck to hit a motorcycle, then the negligent driver was the cause-in-fact of the injuries to both the truck driver and the motorcyclist.

Sometimes actions can lead to a chain reaction of events that continues for a long period of time. The “but for” test may be satisfied, but at some point, the original action becomes too disconnected from an injury for a finding of legal liability. For this reason, a plaintiff is also required to prove proximate causation in order to win their personal injury lawsuit.

Proximate Causation

The proximate cause test focuses on foreseeability. It is concerned with whether the defendant could have reasonably foreseen that their conduct would cause this type of injury? If the type of injury is unexpected based on the cause, there may be no proximate causation.

For example, a speeding driver can reasonably expect that he may cause a car accident. The proximate cause test would be met if he was involved in any type of car crash.

However, say a speeding driver is passing another vehicle on the highway. The speeding driver does not hit the other vehicle, but the other driver is so shocked to see someone driving that fast that he suffers a heart attack. Should the speeder have reasonably foreseen that his actions would cause this type of injury?

It’s likely that this type of injury would not be foreseeable. Even if the sight of the speeding vehicle was the cause-in-fact of the heart attack and resulting injuries, it probably doesn’t satisfy the proximate cause test. You could also make the argument that the heart attack would have happened regardless of the speeding driver’s actions.

The proximate cause test can be difficult to apply, especially if your case involves usual circumstances. A jury will ultimately decide whether the defendant’s actions were the legal cause of your injuries. A personal injury lawyer can help explain how this legal test might apply to your case.

Multiple Causes of an Injury

Sometimes an accident has multiple causes. One of these causes may be your own negligence. As long as you can meet both the cause-in-fact and proximate causation tests, the other party may still be liable for your injuries. The amount of damages they are responsible for will depend on their assigned fault percentage.

Suppose a tailgating driver negligently rear-ends your vehicle, but you had malfunctioning brake lights. Both parties may share some fault for the accident. Under the New York comparative fault law, you can still file a lawsuit against the other driver seeking compensation for your injuries. 

In this case, you would not have been injured but for the other driver’s negligence. The proximate cause test is also met because a rear-end collision is reasonably foreseeable when a driver is driving too close behind another vehicle. However, the amount of damages you can recover will be reduced by your percentage of fault for the accident.

If you have $100,000 in damages and you were 40% at fault, you could only seek compensation of $60,000 from the other party. 

Talk to a Personal Injury Lawyer

If you have questions about legal causation, talk to a personal injury lawyer. They can explain how both cause-in-fact and legal causation may apply to your case. Don’t delay, as New York law only gives you three years to file your personal injury claim.

Request a free consultation to make sure you understand how to seek compensation for injuries caused by another person’s negligence.

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