Causation in Personal Injury Cases

personal injury care flow chartA “proximate cause” is a legal term for the closest reason why the bad thing happened. In the context of personal injury cases, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence was the closest reason why she was injured. The closest reason is distinguished from other possible reasons for the injury. For example, if you were struck by another vehicle in traffic, it could be argued that one of the reasons you were struck is that you chose to drive on that particular road that morning or that you were speeding along with the flow of traffic. However, these reasons are probably not as closely related to the accident as the fact that the person who struck you was negligent in his or her driving.

A related concept is “cause-in-fact,” which is an event that must have taken place before the bad thing could happen. In the above example, you driving on that road was a “cause-in-fact” of your being hit. All proximate causes must first be a cause-in-fact. Most states however, including Florida, apply a bit more scrutiny before accepting an event as a legal cause-in-fact. The cause-in-fact should, itself, be negligent, and should be related to the injury in a common sense way. One judge put it like this: “There must be such a natural, direct, and continuous sequence between the negligence and the injury that it can reasonably be said that but for the act the injury would not have occurred.” Pope v. Pinkerton-Hays Lumber Co. This is one of the standards that judges instruct juries to use in civil cases. It is often called the “but for” test.

Proximate cause analysis results in a great deal of disagreement, even among judges. Often people do not see eye-to-eye as to what actually caused a person’s injury. Was it the person’s own fault for failing to follow the rules? Was it the fault of the injurer? Was it the fault of the entity that brought the injured party into contact with the injurer? Sometimes, there is more than one cause acting at the same time and any one of those causes, alone, could have resulted in the same injury. In cases like this, Florida courts consider a person’s conduct a “cause of the [injury] if it was a material and substantial factor in bringing it about.” Loftin v. Wilson. Judges instruct juries to use this standard in cases of concurring causes and it is often called the “substantial factor” test.

Thirdly, in cases where the injury or damage is especially bizarre or extraordinary, courts are reluctant to attribute all the liability to the person who acted negligently on grounds of fairness. They reason that the defendant could not possibly have foreseen that the danger of his or her negligence would be so extreme. This standard is also often used when there were other intervening causes that led to the injury. How could one foresee that his or her negligence would be compounded by other certain intervening events thus resulting in someone’s injury? If an injury or damage is unforeseeable, the courts will not find the defendant wholly liable. This is often called the “foreseeability test.”

Personal Injury Case in Florida

In one important Florida case, young Andrew Stahl was riding his bicycle to school using a bike path that had been constructed by Miami-Dade County. The path was commonly used by children riding bicycles to school and Miami-Dade County was aware of this. The path was about five feet wide and made of asphalt. However, it had not been maintained since it was first built in 1971, so tree roots had begun to grow underneath and the path was bumpy and rough in those places.

Andrew avoided the bumps by veering onto an adjacent grassy area and then into the street to avoid a menacing trees in the grassy area. He was immediately struck and killed by a driver on the street. Andrew Stahl v. Metropolitan Dade County

The Florida trial court said that Miami-Dade’s negligence in failing to maintain the bike path was not the proximate cause of Andrew’s wrongful death as a matter of law. But the Florida District Court of Appeal disagreed. They found that the injury was a foreseeable result of Miami-Dade’s failure to maintain the bike path. They pointed out that bicyclists travel with a certain momentum and speed and if a bicyclist needs to move off a path to avoid taking a spill, he or she may be unable to immediately stop, and may very well be forced to ride where there is nearby open space, which in this case, was in the street.