In personal injury law, causation is of paramount importance.
In personal injury law, causation is of paramount importance. It’s what our Swartz & Swartz attorneys work so hard to prove to win your case.
Even if a defendant is proven to have breached its standard of care, the evidence must also show that the breach was a legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Thus, without causation, a defendant cannot be found to be legally responsible for damages. Put another way, if you can’t point to somebody or something as the cause of your injuries, no matter how severe, then the law does not permit a finding of fault for their actions (or inactions), and you certainly won’t be able to receive compensation for damages.
Let’s look at an example to illustrate the importance of causation. Say you are out one day walking and you get hit by a car when crossing the street. You – the plaintiff – must be able to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, not only that the driver of the car owed you a duty of care, that this duty was breached, and that you suffered harm, but also that the damages your experienced were caused by the defendant’s actions or inactions. In this example, causation may be relatively straightforward. However, in complex actions involving multiple defendants, proof may be challenging, requiring an experienced attorney to develop supporting evidence during the litigation process.
It’s important to note that something can be the actual or proper cause of harm without necessarily being the legal cause. To this end, the law recognizes two types of cause, “actual cause” and “legal cause.” Among other things, for a personal injury case to be successful, both types of causation need to be proved by the plaintiff.
Actual cause refers to what you might consider the factual cause of the accident. Without this cause, the accident that resulted in your injury couldn’t have happened. Let’s go back to our example. Say the investigation into your accident determined that the driver of the car that hit you ran a red light. This means that the driver running the red light clearly caused you to be struck. So, in our example we can establish “actual cause.”
In real life however, most personally injury cases aren’t that clear cut. Let’s make our example a bit more complicated – say the car that hit you ran the red light because there was an erratic, dangerous driver trying to bump into them, despite their attempts to obey all traffic laws. Pointing to the actual cause of your accident isn’t that simple anymore – was it the driver running the red who caused you to get hit? Or was your accident actually caused by the dangerous driver?
Until recently, in Massachusetts there were two legal tests that could be used to determine actual cause, the “but-for test” and the “substantial factor test.” The but-for test says that an action is a cause of an injury if, but for the action, the injury wouldn’t have occurred. In other words, would the harm have occurred if the defendant hadn’t acted in the way they did? If the answer is no, then the action caused the harm. Let’s go back to our example: but for the car running the red light, would you have been hit? Good work if you’re not sure what the answer is – you’re right to think that more than one cause is at play.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently prohibited the use of the substantial factor test of actual causation in most cases where multiple sufficient causes of liability may exist amongst multiple defendants.
The substantial factor test allowed more leeway to find that that multiple parties caused an accident. Under the substantial factor test, a jury considered whether a defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in causing the injury. However, in a landmark decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently prohibited the use of the substantial factor test of actual causation in most cases where multiple sufficient causes of liability may exist amongst multiple defendants. The Court found the test to be “unnecessarily confusing” and said that Massachusetts courts should only rely on the “but-for test” to prove actual causation, and that the “but-for test” can be effectively used in cases even where multiple causes of harm occurred.
Taking a final look at our example, we can understand how applying the “but-for test” would allow us to determine that both the car running the red light and the dangerous driver caused you to get hit and injured.
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Mr. Angueira is an accomplished senior trial lawyer at Swartz & Swartz, P.C., who has obtained record breaking results for his clients. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1982 and the New York Bar in 1983. He specializes Employment Litigation, Medical Malpractice, Product Liability, Discrimination, Whistle Blower and False Claims.
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