Foreseeability, Proximate Cause, and Personal Injury Liability

After an accident, the fault determination comes down to the interplay between a few key legal concepts.

By , Attorney · Pepperdine Caruso School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

In most personal injury cases, the answer to the question "Who was at fault?" comes down to figuring out who was negligent (or careless) in the eyes of the law. But a few other legal concepts also come into play during this liability analysis, including "proximate cause" and "foreseeability."

Personal Injury Liability Starts With Negligence

"Negligence" is often defined as the failure to use reasonable care in a particular situation. But 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.

That's not all: Usually the type of harm that occurred must have been foreseeable. And just to complicate things, the extent of the injured person's compensable harm isn't typically limited by what was or wasn't foreseeable.

Let's look closer at these concepts (and why they matter) when you're trying to prove fault in a personal injury case.

What Is Foreseeability?

Foreseeability is a personal injury law concept that is often used to determine proximate cause after an accident. The foreseeability test basically asks whether the person causing the injury should have reasonably expected the consequences that would result because of their conduct.

For example, let's says a driver runs a red light. As a result:

  • the driver crashes into an oncoming vehicle
  • a third vehicle is forced to leave the roadway in an effort to avoid a collision, and
  • a pedestrian in the crosswalk breaks her wrist while diving out of the way.

All three of these consequences are a foreseeable result of the driver's negligent action.

What Is Proximate Cause?

If a personal injury claimant wouldn't have suffered any harm "but for" the negligent person's conduct, then that conduct can be called the "proximate cause" of the claimant's injuries. Going back to the example we laid out above, in all three "consequence" scenarios, the driver's act of running the red light would be considered the proximate cause of any resulting injuries.

How Foreseeability and Proximate Cause Work Together

The law usually limits the scope of liability based on 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 someone else isn't liable if the type of harm doesn't foreseeably flow from the negligent act.

For example, if Damon drops a glass bottle on the floor and doesn't 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's magnified through the broken glass, it's 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 and Superseding Causes

A person who causes injury to someone else isn't liable for a superseding cause when the superseding cause itself wasn't foreseeable. In this kind of situation, it's said that the superseding act breaks the causal chain between the initial negligent act and the injury. That typically means the person who committed the initial negligent act will be relieved of liability.

For example, if Daniel 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, Daniel 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 Daniel arguing that it wasn't.

Other examples of superseding causes that are usually deemed unforeseeable:

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

Examples of superseding causes that are typically deemed foreseeable (so that the defendant doesn't 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's sustained as a result of the injured person being in a weakened condition.

Can the Extent of the Injured Person's Harm Be Considered "Unforeseeable"?

A person who causes injury to someone else is liable for the full extent of the resulting harm, whether or not the extent of that harm was foreseeable.

For example, if Dallas is speeding through a small, suburban town and collides with Paula's Ferrari, Dallas is liable for the full amount of damage caused to the car, despite the fact that it might not be foreseeable to encounter such an expensive car in a small, suburban town.

What Is the "Eggshell Plaintiff" Rule?

The "eggshell plaintiff" rule says that when someone is found to be at fault for an accident, they take any injured person as they find them. So, if the accident described above would normally only cause a few thousand dollars' worth of harm, but Paula suffers from a rare bone disease and requires over $100,000 in medical treatment as a result of the accident, Dallas is liable for the full nature and extent of the injuries suffered by Paula in the accident.

Learn more about proving negligence in a personal injury case.

Getting Help After an Accident or Injury

The concepts we've covered in this article are pretty complex. Of course, it helps to have a sense of how the law holds someone accountable for another person's harm after an accident. But if you're the one who's been injured, it's your lawyer's job to understand the ins and outs of legal concepts like these, and apply them to your case.

Not every accident scenario will lead to liability, but in some situations it makes sense to at least get the viewpoint of an experienced legal professional. Learn more about how a lawyer handles an injury claim and get tips on finding the right lawyer for you and your case.

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