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What Is Proximate Cause?

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. | Last updated on

Proximate cause is an important element in negligence lawsuits, but it can also be a requirement in other types of legal actions, like getting restitution under federal law.

Generally, proximate cause refers to actions that are reasonably foreseeable to lead to the injuries suffered by a plaintiff.

So what does proximate cause actually mean?

Proximate Cause

Actual cause or cause-in-fact is the act or failure to act that without which the harm wouldn't have occurred. If the injury would not have occurred if an act or omission did not, it is likely to be the actual cause.

However, legal causation or proximate cause requires more than that. In order to be held liable in most tort actions, injuries must be the reasonably foreseeable effects of the defendant's actions. The idea of foreseeability being the test for proximate cause in negligence cases was established in the landmark case Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.

So imagine this scenario: A person is speeding down the street and there are warning signs telling drivers to slow down because of uneven pavement. The driver ignores the sign and continues speeding, but he loses control of the vehicle and slams into another car.

The driver's speeding and failure to abide by the warning signs is the proximate cause of the accident because it is foreseeable that disregarding traffic laws will lead to traffic accidents. On the other hand, if the driver had never left the house that day, the accident would likely not have occurred (the cause-in-fact). The difference between these two causes is one is reasonably foreseeably the cause of a crash, while the other is merely one of many choices in a causal chain leading up to the accident.

What Kind of Cause Is Necessary to Sue?

In a negligence case, plaintiffs need to prove that the defendant was both the actual cause and the proximate cause. In most cases, these elements would be proven by:

  • Actual cause. The "but-for" test can show that but for the plaintiff's actions or omissions, the injuries in the case would not have occurred. This is typically enough to establish actual cause.
  • Proximate cause. The foreseeability test introduced by Palsgraf is still used to show that an injury was the reasonably foreseeable outcome of a certain act or omission.

Still confused about proximate cause? You're not alone. Consult with a personal injury lawyer about the finer points of proximate cause and how it relates to your case.

Editor's Note, April 19, 2016: This post was first published in April 2014. It has since been updated.

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