Foreseeability and Proximate Cause in a Personal Injury Case

Learn about these key liability concepts and how they impact the fault determination after an accident.

In most personal injury cases, the answer to the question "Who was at fault?" comes down to figuring out who was negligent. And "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. Just to complicate things, the extent of the harm is not typically 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 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 foreseen the general consequences that would result because of his or her conduct.

Foreseeability and Proximate Cause

The law usually 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

Talk to a Personal Injury Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Make the Most of Your Claim

Get the compensation you deserve.

We've helped 285 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you