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Causation in Personal Injury

The Issue of Causation – California Personal Injury

In California, for a personal injury claim to succeed, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant(s) directly and proximately caused the injuries-at-issue. A defendant who is to some degree involved in the accident, but whose behaviors do not in fact directly and proximately cause the sequence of events leading to injury, cannot be held liable for said injury.

The concept of legal causation may be somewhat confusing to the layperson. Let’s break this concept down into its component parts.

Proximate Cause

California follows substantial factor causation. California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) 430 describes substantial factor causation as follows: “A substantial factor in causing harm is a factor that a reasonable person would consider to have contributed to the harm. It must be more than a remote or trivial factor. It does not have to be the only cause of the harm. Conduct is not a substantial factor in causing harm if the same harm would have occurred without that conduct.”

Essentially, for a defendant to be held liable in a California personal injury case, his conduct must have substantially contributed to the harm such that if the defendant did not act as he did, the harm would not have resulted.

Note that the defendant’s contributing conduct must be more than a remote or trivial factor.

For example, if a patron is exiting defendant’s restaurant and trips and falls on the steps, the patron might attempt to argue that he would not have tripped and fell had the steps been painted bright yellow, as opposed to bright orange. In such a case, the court is likely to find that the difference between bright yellow and bright orange – and its effect on step visibility – is a trivial factor.

Still, a minor effect or force can constitute a substantial, contributing factor if the plaintiff’s injuries are a reasonably foreseeable result. For example, if a defendant lightly pushes the plaintiff off the edge of a sidewalk and into a heavily trafficked street, then the defendant’s conduct will likely be considered a direct, proximate, and substantial cause of the ensuing vehicular-pedestrian injury. The injury would also likely be considered reasonably foreseeable.

Calling to mind the laws of personal injury as a whole, remember that the defendant(s) cannot be held liable unless their conduct is culpable in some way – in other words, the defendant’s conduct that directly, proximately, and substantially caused plaintiff’s injuries must have been negligent, intentional, or violative of some strict liability rule or regulation. Though a defendant’s innocent cough may have startled a plaintiff into falling and injuring himself, the plaintiff cannot then sue defendant for personal injury unless the defendant’s cough was somehow intentional for the purpose of making plaintiff startle and fall.

Finally, direct, proximate causation requires that the defendant set off a reasonably foreseeable series of events that leads to the plaintiff’s injuries. What is deemed reasonably foreseeable is a mostly subjective assessment, though some case law in California may provide useful guidance, depending on the circumstances of your case. As reasonable foreseeability is subjective, it requires effective, persuasive argument, so you will want to seek the representation of a skilled and experienced personal injury attorney.

What is not reasonably foreseeable is usually more clear-cut, however. Generally, an intervening cause that snaps the “chain of causation” will shield the defendant from liability (unless the plaintiff can prove that the chain of causation was not snapped).

The chain of causation is the reasonably foreseeable series of events that follow defendant’s conduct. Consider this silly example: suppose that a defendant restaurant owner has negligently maintained the exit stairwell to his restaurant. Suppose also that the plaintiff-victim trips and falls on the stairs, and, while falling, is struck by lightning. If the plaintiff sues the restaurant owner, the plaintiff cannot claim that his burn injuries from the lightning bolt were a reasonably foreseeable result of the poor condition of the stairwell. On the other hand, the plaintiff may be able to successfully sue the restaurant owner for those specific injuries (perhaps broken bones, etc.) that directly, proximately, substantially, and foreseeably resulted from the negligent maintenance of the stairs. The aforementioned example demonstrates the “snapping” of the chain of causation.

Multiple Causes and Shared Fault

In some cases, multiple defendants may be held liable for causing the plaintiff’s injuries. The law does require direct, proximate causation, but there are many circumstances in which multiple defendants each contribute substantially and proximately to the plaintiff’s injuries.

Let’s break down a multiple-defendant example to help further our understanding.

Imagine that a defendant-driver (Driver #1) isn’t paying attention and rear-ends the plaintiff’s stopped car at a red light. The plaintiff’s car is pushed into the intersection, where the second defendant-driver (Driver #2) slams into the side of the plaintiff’s car, severely injuring him. Driver #1 appears to be primarily at fault here, but suppose that Driver #2 was speeding at the time of the accident and was negligent in paying attention to his surroundings. To some degree, then, both Driver #1 and #2 directly and proximately caused the accident. It is also reasonably foreseeable that rear-ending a car into a busy intersection will result in a side-collision, and it is reasonably foreseeable that speeding through an intersection may result in a collision (as the time to react to spontaneous changes in the driving environment is reduced). In this case, both Driver #1 and #2 would likely be found liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.

Now, assuming that multiple parties are liable, in California the liability of each party must be divided up between them. This is known as comparative negligence, or shared fault. The courts of California divide up the total damages owed by the percent fault of each party. Importantly, the courts may even find the plaintiff at-fault to a degree and, if so, will offset the damages award by the percent fault of the plaintiff.

In the above example involving the rear-end accident, imagine that the plaintiff was somewhat at-fault for the rear-end as well – perhaps he had been driving with broken red brakelights on the rear of his car, giving little visual indication of his presence at the intersection to Driver #1 (let’s also assume that the scenario takes place at night). In such circumstances, Driver #1 would likely be found liable for not stopping at a red light, Driver #2 would likely be found liable under a theory of negligence for speeding, and the plaintiff would likely be found at least partially at-fault for his own injuries due to his failure to repair his own brakelights. The court would take into consideration all the evidence and arguments, and would determine the respective percent fault of each party (out of 100%) and thus divvy up the damages. If the damages total was $100,000 and Driver #1 was found 60% at fault, Driver #2 was found 30% at fault, and the plaintiff was found 10% at fault, then the Plaintiff would be actually entitled to a damages award of $90,000, with $60,000 owed by Driver #1 and $30,000 owed by Driver #2.