Other Free Encyclopedias » Law Library - American Law and Legal Information » Free Legal Encyclopedia: National Environmental Policy Act of (1969) to Notice » Negligence - The Reasonable Person, Proof Of Negligence, Duty, Proximate Cause, Intervening Cause, Defenses To Negligence Liability

Negligence - Proximate Cause

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Perhaps no issue in negligence law has caused more confusion than the issue of proximate cause. The concept of proximate cause limits a defendant's liability for his negligence to consequences reasonably related to the negligent conduct. Although it might seem obvious whether a defendant's negligence has caused injury to the plaintiff, issues of causation are often very difficult. Suppose, for example, that a defendant negligently causes an automobile accident, injuring another driver. The colliding cars also knock down a utility pole, resulting in a power outage. Clearly the defendant's negligence has in fact caused both the accident and power outage. Most people would agree that the negligent defendant should be liable for the other driver's injuries, but should he also be liable to an employee who, due to the failure of her electric alarm clock, arrives late for work and is fired? This question raises the issue of proximate cause.

Actually, the term proximate cause is somewhat misleading because as a legal concept it has little to do with proximity (in time or space) or causation. Rather, proximate cause is related to fairness and justice, in the sense that at some point it becomes unfair to hold a defendant responsible for the results of his negligence. For example, Mrs. O'Leary's negligent placement of her lantern may have started the Great Chicago Fire, but it would be unjust to hold her responsible for all the damage done by the fire.

In determining whether a defendant's negligence is the proximate cause of a plaintiff's injury, most courts focus on the foreseeability of the harm that resulted from the defendant's negligence. For example, if a driver negligently drives his automobile, it is foreseeable that he might cause an accident with another vehicle, hit a pedestrian, or crash into a storefront. Thus, the driver would be liable for those damages. But suppose the negligent driver collides with a truck carrying dynamite, causing an explosion that injures a person two blocks away. Assuming that the driver had no idea that the truck was carrying dynamite, it is not foreseeable that his negligent driving could injure a person two blocks away. Therefore the driver would not be liable for that person's injury under this approach. When applying this approach, courts frequently instruct juries to consider whether the harm or injury was the "natural or probable" consequence of the defendant's negligence.

A minority of courts hold the view that the defendant's negligence is the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury if the injury is the "direct result" of the negligence. Usually a plaintiff's injury is considered to be the direct result of the defendant's negligence if it follows an unbroken, natural sequence from the defendant's act and no intervening, external force acts to cause the injury.

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Negligence - Proximate Cause