The following article is the fifth in a series about personal injury law. You can read the first article here, which explains where laws come from. You can read the second article here, which explains what a tort is. The third article describes the duty element in a negligence case. The fourth article details the breach element of a tort.
This article will focus on explaining the third element a plaintiff must prove in a negligence case – causation. It is written for people who do not have legal training. Its goal is to greatly simplify the legal processes related to personal injury law. As a result, it should not be relied upon for complete accuracy or as legal advice. If you would like to receive future educational articles in your inbox, enter your email here:
Causation: The Third Element of Negligence
Proving that a defendant owed a duty and that the duty was breached only takes you halfway to proving negligence. You must also prove that the breach caused harm. This is the causation element of a tort.
The law recognizes two ways to prove causation: actual and proximate.
The first concept is actual cause. This is sometimes referred to as “cause in fact.” Actual cause means that the defendant’s negligent conduct directly resulted in the plaintiff’s injury. There is no ambiguity in actual causation. It is a simple matter of cause and effect. There is a simple test to determine whether the defendant’s negligent conduct was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injury. That test is called the “but for” test.
“But For” Causation Example:
An Uber driver approaches an intersection in his car. The Uber driver has a red light. At the same intersection, a pedestrian is walking in the crosswalk. The Uber driver is not paying attention, runs the red light and hits the pedestrian.
Common sense dictates that drivers owe a duty to stop at red lights. Running a red light is a breach of that duty. Causation is equally obvious. “But for” the Uber driver’s act of running the red light, the collision and resulting injury would not have occurred. The Uber car wreck lawyers at our firm see this scenario every day.
A Counter Example:
Suppose a Lyft driver is driving while intoxicated. She lawfully stops for a red light. Suddenly, a tractor trailer slams into her from behind, causing serious injuries.
There is no question that the Lyft driver owes a duty to drive sober. Failing to drive sober is a breach of that duty. However, the intoxication of the Lyft driver had nothing to do with why the tractor trailer hit her from behind. The truck driver will not be able to claim that the Lyft driver was the “but for” cause of the wreck by driving drunk. So, there is no actual cause on the part of the Lyft driver.
In the last example, two people were negligent but only one person’s negligence was the cause of the injuries. Many personal injuries occur as the result of the combined negligence of two or more defendants. This is called concurrent liability, meaning more than one person’s actions were the cause of the incident.
Assume a truck driver is speeding through a neighborhood. Suddenly, an electric scooter pulls in front of the truck. The scooter driver is intoxicated and did not look before entering the road. The speeding truck driver swerves to miss the scooter and hits a pedestrian standing on the sidewalk.
The truck driver owed a duty to operate his truck safely and not speed. The scooter driver owed a duty to yield to oncoming traffic and not operate the scooter while intoxicated. Both breached their duties. “But for” the negligence of both, the pedestrian would not have been injured.
Although you may have an opinion on which person was more at fault, both the truck driver and the scooter driver caused the wreck. As you can see, there can be multiple causes for an injury. When this happens in Georgia, the jury will be asked to assign percentages of fault to each party. This is called apportionment.
Proximate cause and “but for” causation are similar. They involve different mental approaches to the same concept. In a proximate cause case, the plaintiff must prove that their injuries were the natural and direct consequence of the defendant’s actions.
There must be an analysis of the specific circumstances. If the consequences of the negligent conduct are very remote or unexpected, the defendant will not be liable.
Foreseeability simply asks whether the result of an action was reasonably anticipated. As a simple example, presume a bus driver is not paying attention and strikes a pedestrian. The impact causes a broken arm. This is a predicable or “foreseeable” result. Everyone agree that you are more likely to strike a person or object if not paying attention while driving. Here, the bus driver hit a person. It is equally foreseeable that being hit by a bus will cause an injury like a broken bone. Again, that is the exact result expected. Thus, there was a predictable injury that occurred in a predicable manner. It was foreseeable.
How Far Does Foreseeability Go?
Now imagine an Uber driver negligently strikes a van parked on a patch of ice. The van rolls down a hill. At the bottom of the hill is a tractor trailer carrying a load of highly flammable liquid. The van strikes the tractor trailer, causing the flammable liquid to spill from the truck. At the same time, a nearby pedestrian flicks a cigarette onto the ground. The flammable liquid makes its way to the cigarette and explodes. The explosion causes burns to a man riding on a motorcycle nearby.
Under this scenario, there are no clear answers. A court or jury may find that the resulting burn injury to the motorcycle driver was an unforeseeable result. This finding would free the defendant from civil liability. The defendant could also be freed from liability with the finding that the injured motorcycle driver was an unforeseeable victim. The manner of the occurrence itself was also unusual, bizarre and unpredictable.
Unusual Injuries: The Eggshell Plaintiff Rule
Unlike the exception for unusual wrecks, there are no rules that protect a defendant from unusual injuries. Most states have something called the “eggshell plaintiff rule.” The rule requires “the defendant to take the plaintiff as the defendant finds him.” It makes no difference that a plaintiff has a more severe result than a normal person would have to the same impact.
Eggshell Plaintiff Example
Pretend a large hotel failed to follow its own rules for treating water in the hot tub. As a result, legionella bacteria began to grow in the water. A woman with a compromised immune system gets into the hot tub and becomes infected by the bacteria. Although a healthy person would only get sick from exposure, this woman dies. The hotel did not know that the woman had a compromised immune system and never intended to cause anyone to get sick. Because of the “eggshell plaintiff” rule, the hotel would be fully responsible for the woman’s death. This exact scenario happened in Atlanta at an upscale hotel. You can read about the Atlanta Sheraton Legionnaires Disease outbreak here. Here is the jury charge that would be read in a case involving an eggshell plaintiff:
Eggshell Plaintiff Jury Charge
If you should find that, at the time of the incident, the plaintiff had any physical condition, ailment, or disease that was becoming apparent or was dormant, and if you should find that the plaintiff received an injury as a result of the negligence of the defendant and that the injury resulted in any aggravation of a condition already pending, then the plaintiff could recover damages for aggravation of the preexisting condition.
This exception also brings up a secondary point. Your personal injury attorney team should obtain a complete medical history from you. It’s important to account for future medical complications down the road due to a preexisting injury or condition. However, that is a question of damages, which is the topic of the next article in this series.