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Proximate Cause Definition

proximate cause definition

Although jurisprudence would describe proximate cause definition as elusive, proximate cause can still be generally expressed as the event that is the substantial cause that foreseeably produced the harm or injury to plaintiff. Foreseeability is a primary factor in determining proximate cause. The injury to plaintiff must be a natural and foreseeable consequence of the act complained of.

Proximate cause definition is an important legal concept that is applied, not only in personal injury, torts and negligence claims, but also breach of contract, insurance, labor law, and other civil claims. Basically, in any claim for damages, one must show that the action complained of was the proximate cause of the damages suffered.

Proximate cause definition in personal injury, torts and negligence

In personal injury, torts and negligence, the negligent act must have been the event that substantially and foreseeably caused the injury of the plaintiff. In breach of contract, the damages to the non-breaching party must have been a natural and foreseeable consequence of the breach. In insurance, only damages that were natural and foreseeable consequences of the event covered by the insurance policy will be indemnified.

In Labor Law, for example, the Scaffold Law, although any employee who falls from heights while on the job is considered the responsibility of the employer, the employee should also prove that, first, the employer violated the statute by not providing safety equipment for protection, and second, such violation proximately caused the employee’s fall. Duda v. Rouse, 32 NY2d 405, 408 [1973]. In most cases, however, a violation of the statute has consequently been traced to be the proximate cause of the employee’s falls and injuries resulting from the fall. The Court, however, has barred recovery after showing that the employer had adequate provisions for safety but the employee did not use it. Robinson v. East Medical Center, et. al., 6 N.Y.3d 550 (2006).

Other factors affecting the amount of damages

Aside from proximate cause definition, the presence of contributory negligence and assumption of risk can reduce the amount of damages the plaintiff can receive.

Under NY CPLR § 1411, the culpable conduct attributable to plaintiff, such as contributory negligence or assumption of risk, can diminish the amount of damages that can be awarded, but will not bar recovery. Labor Law 240, however, is an exception to NY CPLR § 1411, and any negligence of the employee cannot reduce the amount of damages claimed from the employer if the employer violated Labor Law § 240.

Contributory negligence occurs when the plaintiff’s actions contributed to his injuries. There is assumption of risk when the plaintiff, after being notified of the risks, consented and participated in the event that led to his injuries. A classic example of assumption of risk is the participation of athletes in dangerous sports. The sports organizer or stadium owner’s degree of liability depends on an analysis of the risks assumed by the athlete. Turcotte v. Fell, et. al., 68 N.Y.2d 432 (1986). Although contributory negligence and assumption of risk do not bar recovery, it can reduce the amount of damages based on the proportion of negligence or amount of risk assumed by the plaintiff.

In Merill v. State of New York, 110 Misc.2d 260 (1981), the Court decreased the claimant’s award of damages by 10% because of his contributory negligence. In that case, the claimant, attending a state fair, was asked by the police officer to park in the middle of Interstate Route 690, and the state knew that such area was being used as parking grounds during state fairs. The claimant was struck at night while trying to retrieve his vehicle. Although the claimant was directed by the police officer to park there, the Court found the claimant to also be negligent because the claimant walked on the traveled portion of the highway with his back towards the traffic, when he could have just easily walked along the shoulder of the road or on the median. Thus, the award to claimant was reduced by 10% due to claimant’s contributory negligence.

Since there were two actors who were negligent, the State and the driver, the award of damages was also equitably shared between the two negligent actors, 20% to the driver and 80% to the State.

Proximate cause in negligence claims and as an issue of fact

Generally, a negligence claim arising from personal injury and/or wrongful death requires proof of the following: (a) an existence of a duty; (b) breach of a duty; (c) causation; and (d) damages. The causation, in this case, is the proximate cause or the event constituting a substantial cause that foreseeably produced the harm or injury to plaintiff.

Almost always, proximate cause is an issue of fact to be resolved by a finder of fact, aided by appropriate instructions. The issue of proximate cause is rarely decided by law, and only when one conclusion may be drawn from the established facts. Lola Roberts Beauty Salon v. Leading Insurance, 160 A.D.3d 824 (2018). For this reason, in most cases where proximate cause definition is an element of the cause of action, motion for summary judgment will not be granted because of an issue of material fact.

Intervening cause in proximate cause definition

Plaintiffs should also be prepared for defendants who will almost always raise the issue of an intervening cause that would break the causal relationship between the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s injury. In Hain v. Jamison, 28 N.Y.3d 524 (2016), the plaintiff claimed damages for the death of his wife, the decedent, when his wife was struck and killed by a vehicle while assisting a calf that was loose in the roadway. Plaintiff’s claim was against the driver and the owner of the calf. The owner of the calf claimed that the decedent’s act of exiting the vehicle to assist the calf was an intervening and unforeseeable act and that the other driver’s negligence in operating the vehicle was the only proximate cause of decedent’s death. The Court held that the decedent’s action of exiting the vehicle to assist the calf was a foreseeable consequence of the calf-owner’s negligent act of allowing the calf to wander. Thus, the causal connection between the calf-owner’s negligent act and the decedent’s death was not severed.

In any case where damages are involved, proximate cause definition will always be an issue, whether it be a Labor Law 240 case, personal injury, wrongful death, insurance claim, or breach of contract. If you have suffered damages and need the assistance of counsel, we, at the Law Offices of Albert Goodwin, are here for you. We have offices in New York, NY, Brooklyn, NY and Queens, NY. You can call us at 718-509-9774 or send us an email at attorneyalbertgoodwin@gmail.com.