Proximate Cause

The actions of the person (or entity) who owes you a duty must be sufficiently related to your injuries such that the law considers the person to have caused your injuries in a legal sense. If someone’s actions are a remote cause of your injury, they are not a proximate cause. However, if your injury would not have occurred “but for” the actions of another, then usually you can conclude there was proximate causation. Usually, this is an easy question.

Example: Driver of “Car A” runs a red light and hits “Car B,” which had a green light, causing injury to the driver of Car B. Driver of Car A had a duty to not run the red light, and, assuming no extenuating circumstances that excused running the red light, his actions in doing so directly (and therefore, proximately) caused injuries to the driver of Car B.

But proximate cause can also be the most difficult issue in a personal injury case. Not every remote cause of an injury will result in a right to recover damage.

Example: Driver of “Car A” runs a red light, and “Car B” which has a green light, swerves to avoid being hit. The driver of Car B is fuming and nervous, with a racing pulse. Upset, the driver of Car B continues driving, and three blocks later, hits a parked car, injuring himself. The driver of Car B can try and claim that the actions of the driver of Car A caused him to get hurt when he hit the parked car. And it may well be a remote cause; but it is probably not the proximate cause.

Sometimes, the actions of the person who got hurt can be the cause of their own injuries.

Example: You are playing catch, and your ball goes over a fence onto someone else’s property. The fence is locked, and a sign says, “Do not enter; ring bell.” You ring the bell, and the owner opens the gate for you, inviting you to his property. You explain you lost your ball. The owner tells you to wait by the gate while he retrieves your ball “because the yard is not safe.” The owner starts going to retrieve the ball, walking in a strange pattern across his yard. You become impatient and decide to follow him. You walk onto the grass and, within seconds, notice that your feet are bleeding because there is glass all around. The owner knew the glass was there and didn’t tell you. But there may be some question as to whether the owner’s actions proximately caused your injuries, since he warned you that the yard was dangerous and that you should wait while he got the ball.

Can the actions of different people be the proximate cause of my injury?

Yes. If two or more separate people breach a duty and each action is a proximate cause of your injury, you can recover from each person.

Comparative Fault—What if the defendant says I contributed to my injuries?

New York personal injury law operates on what is known as a “comparative fault” basis. That means that when assessing blame and hence damages, a court will look at whether the defendant is less than 100% responsible because your behavior also contributed to your own injury. The defendant is responsible for less of your damage if you contributed to your own injury.

Example: You are in a store, and the item you want to buy is in an aisle that is blocked with a sign that says, “slippery floor—stay off floor.” You decide to reach to get your item, which is close to arm’s length away. As you reach, your feet move into the aisle, and you slip and fall, injuring your hip. A court may decide the store was negligent in how it blocked the aisle, and that you were 0% at fault. The court could also decide that because you ignored a warning, you were 10% at fault, 50% at fault 90% at fault, or even completely at fault. Whatever the percentage, it will be deducted from your recovery. So if you have $10,000 in damages and you are 25% at fault you will only recover $7,500.

I think I have been injured by the wrongful conduct of another:

  • Seek medical attention immediately
  • Document your claims as thoroughly as possible
  • Your time to sue is limited; contact a personal injury lawyer ASAP

Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.

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