Explaining causation to a jury is difficult in some cases. In other cases causation may be very simple. In an auto collision case if a person hits his or her head on a steering wheel and loses consciousness, the resulting brain damage is easy to link to the collision. In other instances however explaining causation becomes much more difficult. There are different types of causal chains: temporal chains, opportunity chains and unfolding causal chains.
Explaining Causation Through The Temporal Chain
The temporal chain occurs when events take place in a particular order of time. For instance the example of the automobile collision given above is probably an example of a temporal chain where an event occurs and there is resulting injury that manifests itself immediately.
In an opportunity chain there may be one or more prior events that make later events possible. For instance if a contractor fails to place barricades around a work site and as a result of that a driver who is suffering from an epileptic seizure crashes into the work area then what is the cause of the resulting damage? In that type of instance, people are probably going to look at the event that is closest in time to the injury as being the most likely cause.
In an unfolding causal chain you have an instance where earlier events in the chain cause later events that eventually produce the outcome. For instance if debris is left on an airport runway and as a result of that a plane that is taking off has a tire puncture and then crashes, is the debris the cause of the crash or is the fact that the tire was not properly manufactured the cause of the crash?
Explaining Causation Based On Foreseeability
Another way of explaining causation is to look at it from the point of view of foreseeability. That is, was the outcome or some similar outcome foreseeable? The more foreseeable it is then the more likely a decision-maker is to conclude that it was a cause.
Another way to explain causation is to deal with the simple term of “proximate cause”. The word “proximate” literally means near as opposed to remote. As such a proximate cause is a near cause as opposed to a remote cause. The more remote the cause is, either in terms of time or chain of events then the less likely it is to be deemed to be the proximate cause. The concept of proximate cause has to be distinguished from the factual cause. A factual cause of my having an automobile collision today was the fact that I got out of bed this morning. That however is not a legal cause because it is too remote.
Frequently in a personal injury case an injured plaintiff has a pre-existing condition. The pre-existing condition may in part be a cause of the condition that the plaintiff suffers from but it is not a cause of the injuries or damages that are compensable in this claim. Those pre-existing injuries or damages are not compensable. What is compensable is the injuries or damages that are evidence of the extent to which the condition was made worse.
Proof of damages can also be complicated by the fact of a subsequent injury. For instance, if you are injured on January 1 and then suffer another injury on June 1, both involving the same body parts, then how are the damages allotted to the two accidents? That becomes a difficult question. If the second injury is minor and clearly only caused a very minor aggravation of your injury from January 1 then the separation of the two injuries becomes fairly easy. If the second injury, however, is more significant and involves the same body part, it becomes very difficult sometimes to distinguish which is the true cause of your current condition.
Causation can also be an issue where there is a so-called superseding cause. A superseding cause is one that is generally considered to be unforeseeable. For instance, if you are a passenger in a vehicle and your driver runs a red light and while passing through the intersection against the red light a tree happens to fall on the car and injures you, what is the cause of your injury? Is it the running of the red light or is it the tree falling? The tree falling in that circumstance would be a superseding cause most likely. That tree falling is probably an act of God and therefore it may be difficult to prove the negligence of your driver in running the red light was in fact the cause of your injury.
In other circumstances the issue of causation becomes important due to what is called remoteness. In some circumstances one event may ultimately be the cause of an injury or damage. In order to be a legal cause of injury or damage the event must be a near or proximate cause of injury or damage. For instance, if I throw a ball across the street to one of my children, expecting that the child is going to catch the ball and the ball happens to go through the window of my next door neighbor’s house and passes through the entire house and out the back window and then knocks over a outdoor grill that is on their back porch causing it to roll down the hill and kill the neighbor at the bottom of the hill, my negligence in throwing the ball too hard probably was not the proximate cause of that neighbor’s death. It is simply too remote. If on the other hand the ball goes through the front window of my neighbor’s home and strikes the neighbor who is standing behind the window then that act of negligence is a proximate cause of injury to that neighbor.
Explaining Causation Based on Sufficient Cause
In a recent decision from the Virginia Supreme Court, the Court dealt with these conflicting definitions of proximate causation. The particular case involved asbestosis. The trial court in this case gave an instruction indicating that the jury could find against the defendants if the defendants’ products were a substantial contributing factor in causing harm to the victims. The Supreme Court rejected that substantial contributing factor test and the so-called “but for” standard. The proper test the court said is that the product exposure must have been “a” sufficient cause of the injury.
More Than One Proximate Cause
Conceivably there could be more than one sufficient cause of an injury. If that is the case however then each of those sufficient causes by themselves must have been sufficient to cause the injury.