Negligence Cases: Proximate Cause and Foreseeability of Harm

Most negligence cases require the Plaintiff to prove the same four elements; duty, breach, causation, and damages.

Actual cause or cause in fact is the actual event that caused the harm. The harm would not have happened but for the actual cause event occurring. Proximate cause is also known as legal cause. To win a negligence claim, the plaintiff must show more than just breach by the Defendant toward the Plaintiff. The negligent content must also be the legal cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries. The Restatement (Second) of Torts requires two elements to be met to determine whether an action is the legal cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries. First, the tortious conduct must be a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. Second, there must not be a rule of law which prevents the defendant from being liable for his negligence.

The court considers three factors to determine whether a Defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. The more potential causes there are, the less likely the court will find the Defendant’s action to be a substantial factor. If the Defendant creates a force or series of forces which are still in motion at the time of the harm, the court will be more likely to find the Defendant’s action to be a substantial factor. However, if the Defendant merely creates a condition which must be acted upon by other forces for which the Defendant is not responsible, the court will be less likely to find a substantial factor. Finally, the amount of time elapsed will effect the court’s decision.

Foreseeability is relevant to both duty and proximate cause. When determining if the Defendant owed a duty of care to the Plaintiff, the court will examine whether it was reasonably foreseeable that there would be an injury to the particular plaintiff. When the jury makes a determination of proximate cause, they will be looking at the foreseeability of the particular injury. It is important to keep these two ideas distinct. The way in which a Plaintiff is injured is not important to the determination of whether there was a duty.

In a recent case from the Illinois Appellate Court for the First District, the court addressed this problem with foreseeability, duty, and proximate cause. In Zokhrabov v. Park, the Plaintiff sued the estate of a man killed when he was struck by an Amtrak train traveling through a Metra station. 2011 IL App 1st 102672. The deceased entered the pedestrian crosswalk when the train was approaching at 73 mph. He was struck and killed, and his body was thrown into the Plaintiff, causing injury to the Plaintiff’s shoulder, and fractures to the wrist and leg. The trial court entered summary judgment against the plaintiff, finding that the deceased did not owe a duty to the Plaintiff.

On review, the appellate court reversed, finding that the deceased did owe a duty to the Plaintiff. The court noted that when a person engages in risky behavior, they have a duty to exercise reasonable care to not cause harm to others. The trial judge had found that the injury caused to the plaintiff was not the reasonably foreseeable result of the deceased attempting to cross the tracks, and was “tragically bizarre.” The appellate court was unpersuaded. Finding no cases on the issue, the court undertook a duty analysis. The court found that it was reasonably foreseeable that the Amtrak train would strike the deceased, killing him and causing him to be flung onto the passenger platform. This was in part due to the fixed speed, direction, and path of travel for the train. The possibility of injury was found to be great, while the burden of looking for other trains was low. Thus, the appellate court found the deceased owed a duty to the plaintiff.

The court was not charged with determining proximate cause, and made no decision on the matter. However, the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 432(2) states that if two forces, one caused by the negligence of the defendant and the other not, could each independently cause harm to another, the defendant’s actions may be found to be a substantial factor in bringing about the harm to the plaintiff. The outcome will be determined by whether a pedestrian crossing train tracks at a pedestrian crossing could cause harm to another.

It takes an experienced lawyer to navigate the elements of a negligence claim. If you have been injured due to the fault of another, contact a lawyer who will protect your claim.