Establishing A Duty Of Care

Negligence is the most common cause of action filed and litigated in civil courts. An action for negligence provides compensation to a party injured by the careless actions of others. The most litigated aspect of any negligence action is the causation element. Before getting to causation, it’s necessary to have a background understanding of all the elements of a negligence action. Actions claiming negligence require plaintiffs to establish four elements: 

  1. Duty 
  2. Breach 
  3. Causation, and 
  4. Damages

To establish duty, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff. This duty varies based on the relationship between the parties. Generally, defendants owe a duty of care that must meet the level of care that a reasonable person would exercise in the same or similar circumstances. 

Breaching This Care

As a lawyer, like a car accident lawyer knows, breach refers to a defendant’s breach of their duty of care. Thus, the breach element requires a plaintiff to prove that the defendant failed to meet the standard of care a reasonable person would have exercised in the same or similar circumstances. The damages element requires the plaintiff to prove that he or she suffered actual harm (physical or emotional) as a result of the defendant’s breach of duty. 

Establishing Causation

Causation requires the plaintiff to show two things – cause in fact and proximate cause. Cause in fact is also known as “but-for” causation. It requires the plaintiff to establish that but for the defendant’s breach of their duty, the plaintiff would not have been injured (i.e., incurred damages). Proximate cause requires the plaintiff to establish that the defendant’s breach of duty was a foreseeable cause of the plaintiff’s harm. 

Distinguishing between concurrent and alternative causes is a challenge for establishing cause-in-fact. For proximate cause, establishing directness and foreseeability as well as eliminating intervening causes can be challenging. 

For cause-in-fact, distinguishing between concurrent causes is difficult. Concurrent causes arise when multiple factors contribute to the plaintiff’s injury. When the plaintiff’s harm results from both the defendant’s actions and an independent cause, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant’s breach was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm. When defendants argue an alternative cause, they argue that there was another independent cause that led to the plaintiff’s harm.

Once cause-in-fact is established, the plaintiff must establish the plaintiff’s harm was proximately caused by the defendant’s breach of duty. This requires the plaintiff to navigate and eliminate intervening causes. An intervening cause is a separate and independent cause that contributed or wholly resulted in the plaintiff’s harm. 

The Benefit Of Expert Testimony

Because causation is such a pesky element to prove with a lot of moving parts, expert testimony is the most beneficial way a plaintiff can establish causation. Experts provide insight into the standard of care required by the defendant, the causal link between the defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s harm, and whether the defendant’s actions were foreseeable, and therefore, the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.Thanks to our friends at Eglet Adams for their insight on establishing causation in negligence actions. If you need help with your claim and would like to schedule a consultation, reach out to your local law office for help.