A proximate cause example in legal terms is something which causes another thing to happen. 

What is Proximate Cause?

Something which is either carelessly or intentionally caused and results in someone's injuries or distress. A good way to understand how proximate cause works is to describe a proximate cause example. Proximate cause is used in civil and criminal cases, and are frequent in personal injury legal cases. 

Determining Proximate Cause Through Different Rules

Certain states take into consideration the “but for” rule for proximate cause. This means understanding if the injury would occur but for the action or lapse of the defendant. When the injury wouldn't have occurred but for the action on the defendant's part, proximate cause is proven.

  • If a drunk driver hits a pedestrian, the accident would not have occurred but for the driver's drunkenness. But if the same driver hits a warehouse with explosives inside, and the explosion causes other drivers to swerve and hit the pedestrian, then drunk driving is not a proximate cause of the injuries.

Other states take into consideration the “substation factor” to determine a proximate cause. A substantial factor is something that essentially contributes to an injury. If an act or omission are a small part of the injury, it will not be considered a proximate cause.

  • If a driver hit a truck loaded with explosives, and the explosives ignite and kill the truck driver, the diverted driving is an important factor that caused the accident to occur. 

Proximate cause can also be determined if a person could have foreseen the destructive costs of his actions and taken action to avert them. Foreseeability is commonly used in tort cases and questions are asked to determine proximate cause including:

  • Could the defendant foresee the type of harm inflicted?
  • Is the manner in which the plaintiff's injury occurred foreseeable?
  • Is the degree of the injury foreseeable? 
  • Is the plaintiff among the people who could have foreseen he/she would be injured by the defendant's actions?

Proximate Cause Real Life Example 

Proximate cause was found in the 1927 case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad. 

The plaintiff, Mrs. Palsgraf, was waiting for her train at the end of the platform at Long Island Railroad Station. A man ran to the platform of the departing train from the opposite side, and as the train was moving the man jumped on it but lost his balance. 

Employees on the train and platform helped the main get on the train by pushing and pulling him in. The man was carrying a package of fireworks which fell out of his arms and exploded onto the ground. The loud noise startled the people on the platform including Mrs. Palsfraf, who fell over the set of scales, injuring herself. 

She sued the railroad for being negligent by not seeing the man had fireworks. The court ruled that there was no proximate cause of the workers' actions and in favor of the railroad. The workers could not have foreseen that by helping the defendant, there would be an injury to Mrs. Palsgraf.

The Harm Within the Risk Rule

Mrs. Palsgraf's case can also be used as a proximate cause example for the “harm within the risk” criteria. Harm within the risk considers whether other people could have been injured by the defendant's actions. If it is determined this is the case, then is Mrs. Palsgraf part of this group of people?

Since she was a pedestrian on the platform, then this is the case. Even though the railroad workers could not have known she would be harmed by them helping the defendant, she was in the group of people put at risk. This test is not commonly used today, as it doesn't take into considerations causation.

  • If for example, the workers knowingly threw an unticketed passenger off the train and tossed his luggage onto the platform, then proximate cause exists because they could foresee the possibility of someone getting injured with their actions.
  • Another possibility to consider is if another passenger was trying to get on the train when this incident occurred. Distraction causes him to slip off the steps and break his leg. On this example, the railroad workers cannot be held liable because the harm within the risk rule allows causation to be made in a straight format. 

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