The Differences between Actual and Proximate Cause and How It Relates to a Personal Injury Case


Let’s first discuss the differences between the two terms. The actual cause is the real reason behind your car accident. The proximate cause is the “legal” definition of what happened. That is what the law is recognizing as the cause of the accident. The two might be mutually exclusive. In some cases, lawyers find that the actual cause and the proximate cause do not match.

In layman’s terms, the proximate cause is what lawyers view as what they see as the legal consequences. It can sometimes be tricky to sort the two out, especially when neither side matches. However, when you are dealing with the law, nothing is ever black and white.

According to many legal experts, there are many different shades of grey. The actual cause only sees things through black and white lenses.

Some Examples

Say, for example, you are in a car accident due to someone’s negligence. You can, unless something unexpected comes up, recover most of your damages – economical and non-economical. Your personal injury attorney will argue, on your behalf, that the other person’s duty was neglected and thereby caused your injuries. Your injury attorney will also argue your side from both an actual and proximate view.

In addition, your personal injury attorney will argue that the other side breached their responsibility. Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “didn’t you just tell me that sometimes the two sides are not mutually exclusive”?

I did, and yes, that is true. However, in court, those two parts have to line up if you are going to win your case. The two can remain mutually exclusive outside of the courtroom, but they have to join sides to defend your case. That is where the tricky part comes into play.

The courts play by a different set of rules than we do. That is why I said not everything is black and white. There are many shades of grey. The actual cause is the straightforward version of the facts. The proximate cause is sort of the long and winding road to get to the straightforward version (aka. many shades of grey).

The “But For” Ruling

You are going to hear your personal injury attorney use the phrase a lot, depending on the state you reside in. You will need to know what it means.

Some courts will use this ruling to determine whether or not it is the proximate cause or actual cause. Some sides will argue, for instance, that the injuries might not have happened except for the defendant’s negligence or, sometimes, the omission of the facts.

Say, for example, that the judge finds the injuries would not have happened if the accident had not taken place. That is an example of a proximate cause.

Driving Drunk

There is a drunk guy on the road. He is weaving in and out without a care in the world. The guy hits the other person crossing the road. The pedestrian has major head injuries and has to go to the hospital.

The one side is going to argue that the accident would not have taken place “but for” the driver’s negligence and bad judgment for driving drunk. The one side will also argue that the drunk driver cannot be held responsible for something that might happen. The person could be held accountable, but it is not a slam dunk case with the argument.

One side could also argue a story where the drunk driver slams into a warehouse, thereby, blowing the place up. That explosion causes two more drivers to hit one another head-on. The defendant is going to argue that the driver is responsible for the warehouse, but not the other drivers hitting one another, and possibly, hitting someone walking across the road. The drunk driver is the actual cause of the explosion. However, he is not responsible for the other things that happened. They would file the car accident and hitting the pedestrian under “proximate cause”.

What about the Substantial Factor?

Some states will use this tactic to connect the proximate cause factor.

According to the legal ruling, the courts have to decide whether or not the one side’s omission or negligence is substantiated enough to warrant a ruling.

Drunk Driving Example Two

Let’s take the distracted drunk driver once more. He is driving on the road. He is distracted enough to not notice he is driving into a vehicle carrying some heavy explosives.

The vehicle explodes on impact, killing the driver. The driver is now considered a “substantial factor” in the case. The driver’s actions are considered “operational” until the vehicle explodes due to the impact.

Now, let’s take a look at another situation involving the same driver.

The drunk driver crashes into a sign on the road. A truck comes up, seeing what has happened. He or she decides they do not want to be involved and tries to avoid it.

They swing is so wide that the truck driver (who, by the way, is carrying explosives, too) slams into a parked car. The parked car explodes and kills someone who is just walking by.

The courts probably will rule that the driver carrying the explosives only was involved accidentally.

That means the truck driver who was trying to avoid the initial accident “accidentally” killed the person walking by.

The first example, where the truck driver swung wide to avoid what happened, that is considered to be a “substantiated” factor.

Closing Thoughts

The rule of law can be very tricky to understand. All it takes is one technicality to rule in your favor. You can read more about the proximate and actual cause by visiting any legal site. The information will help you to understand these types of situations better, particularly if you wind up in a situation like the ones described above.