Foreseeability and Proximate Cause in an Injury Case

Learn about these liability concepts and how they impact fault for an injury.

In most personal injury cases, the answer to the question "Who was at fault?" comes down to figuring out who was negligent.

Negligence is the failure, on the part of the person causing the injury, to use the reasonable amount of care that is required in a particular situation. In order to prove negligence, you have to establish that the person causing the injury was not only the actual cause of the injury, but also the proximate cause (or legal cause), of the injury. (See Understanding Negligence for more detail).

In order to be liable for negligence, the type of harm that occurred must have been foreseeable. However, the extent of the harm is not limited by what was or was not foreseeable. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the issues that may arise with respect to proximate cause and foreseeability, when you're trying to prove fault in a personal injury case. 

What is Foreseeability? 

Foreseeability is the leading test that is used to determine proximate cause. The foreseeability test basically asks whether the person causing the injury should have reasonably foreseen the general consequences that would result because of his or her conduct. 

Foreseeability and Proximate Cause 

The law limits the scope of liability based upon the foreseeability of the type of the harm and the manner of the harm, but not the extent of the harm. In this section, we'll explain the distinctions.

Unforeseeable Type of Harm. A person who causes injury to another is not liable if the type of harm does not foreseeably flow from the negligent act.

For example, if Damon drops a glass bottle on the floor and does not clean it up, Damon would be liable for the injuries caused to anyone who cut themselves on the glass. However, if a freak fire is somehow caused by sunlight that is magnified through the broken glass, it is arguable that Damon would not be liable for injuries caused by the fire because they are not a foreseeable type of harm that would flow from the negligent act. In other words, a fire is not a foreseeable result that might stem from leaving shards of glass on the ground.

Unforeseeable Manner of Harm. A person who causes injury to another person is not liable for a superseding cause when the superseding cause itself was not foreseeable. In such a situation, it is said that the superseding act breaks the causal chain between the initial negligent act and the injury. That means the person who committed the initial negligent act will be relieved of liability.

For example, if David left a candle burning in his apartment while he was at work, and, subsequently, a burglar broke into his apartment and knocked the candle over, burning down the entire building, David would likely not be liable for injuries sustained because the burglar was an unforeseeable, superseding cause. In reality, the issue would be argued by both sides of the case -- the people who suffered losses from the fire arguing that the burglar's presence was foreseeable, and David arguing that it was not.

Other examples of superseding causes that are usually deemed unforeseeable:

  • acts of God (i.e., earthquakes)
  • criminal acts of third persons (i.e., burglary), and
  • intentional torts of third persons (i.e., assault, battery, false imprisonment).

Examples of superseding causes that are typically deemed foreseeable (so that the defendant does not escape liability):

  • harm caused by rescuers (i.e., firefighters or other people that come to the injured person’s aid)
  • ordinary negligence of health care providers (i.e., doctors and nurses), and
  • disease or subsequent injury that is sustained as a result of the injured person being in a weakened condition.

Unforeseeable Extent of Harm. A person who causes injury to another person is liable for the full extent of the harm, whether or not the extent of the harm is foreseeable. For example, if Dallas is negligently driving through a small, suburban town and collides with Paris’s Ferrari, Dallas is liable for the full amount of damage caused to the car, despite the fact that it would not be foreseeable to see such a car driving through a small, suburban town.

The "Eggshell Skull" Rule. The eggshell skull rule states that you take your victim as you find them. So, if the accident described above would normally only cause a few thousand dollars’ worth of harm, but Paris suffers from brittle bone disease and requires hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of medical treatment as a result of the accident, Dallas is liable for the full amount of the injury.

See our section on Fault and Liability for more on how this works in a personal injury case.

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