What is Proximate Cause in a Car Accident Case?

The legal concept known as "proximate cause" in a car accident case refers to a driver's act (or failure to act) that actually causes the auto accident and resulting injuries.

The legal concept known as "proximate cause" in a car accident case refers to a driver's act (or failure to act) that actually causes the auto accident and resulting injuries. Put another way, were it not for this particular conduct on the part of the at-fault driver, the car accident would not have occurred.

Proximate cause may come into the discussion when both sides of an insurance claim or lawsuit are debating the issue of fault for the car accident. Read on to learn more.

Proximate Cause vs. Legal Cause

Car accident cases generally have both a proximate cause and a legal cause component, and these are not always one and the same. Proximate cause in a car accident case always refers to the act that initiated the event or chain of events leading to an injury, while legal cause in a car accident case refers to the actual instrument causing injury. This can be a little confusing, so an example might help.

If the vehicle next to you swerves into your lane for no reason, collides with your car, and you sustain an injury, then the vehicle swerving into you is both the proximate and legal cause of your injury. So, any claim or suit arising out of the injury would focus on attributing liability to the driver of the swerving vehicle. Had it not been for the negligent manner in which the swerving driver was operating his vehicle, your injuries would not have occurred (proximate cause) and his negligent operation of his vehicle resulted in your injuries (legal cause).

But what if the swerving vehicle was trying to avoid a jaywalker? But for the jaywalker stepping into the street, the swerving driver would not have collided with you. The jaywalker -- not the swerving driver -- is the proximate cause of your injuries. The swerving driver remains the legal cause of your injuries.

Determining Proximate Cause for a Car Accident

Determining what constitutes the proximate cause of a car accident injury can be a difficult proposition in some cases. In multi-vehicle accidents, the proximate cause of your injuries can be far removed from the actual accident that causes your injury. Car accidents often involve a chain or series of events, and if you are too far back in the chain, you may not even be aware of the proximate cause.

Often, injured parties sue the party responsible for the legal cause of their injury, and in the course of their lawsuit discover who or what was the proximate cause. In these situations, nearly every state has laws allowing either the injured party or the party being sued as the legal cause to bring the party who proximately caused the injuries into the suit.

Having the party that was the proximate cause of the car accident formally involved in the suit is important for both the injured party and the party who legally caused the injuries. Liability as the legal cause of injuries can be deflected or reduced in many instances, so a party being sued as the legal cause of a car accident wants to be able to point the finger at the proximate cause. And if the party that proximately cause the accident is not involved in the suit, an injured party’s recovery may be limited or barred depending on the facts of a case and a judge or jury’s ruling.

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