By Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
One of the things that I found most interesting about law school was learning that things are not always what they seem to be on their face, and that intuitions don’t really count for much when trying to find order and accountability in the world.
Cause and Effect Is Not Simple but Is Pivotal to Civil Litigation
Take the most fundamental example of cause and effect. Most negligence claims require four basic elements: duty, breach, causation, and damages. Proving these elements is essential to succeeding in court, absent special rules like strict products liability. So cause and effect, while apparently very simple and straightforward, is pivotal to civil litigation. But the problem is that cause and effect is actually not simple at all.
Right now, I’m holding a porcelain mug. Suppose I toss it in the air to catch it, but miss. It falls to the floor and shatters. Simple cause and effect, right?
If it’s my mug, then the costs are confined to my own frustration and embarrassment. But what if the mug is yours? If I drop it and break it, am I liable to you for replacing your mug? Probably.
But what if the mug is special? Maybe it is actually an ancient piece of china from the 14th century that you paid thousands of dollars for at auction. But I didn’t know any of that when I decided to toss it in the air. Am I liable to you for the cost of an ordinary mug? Or am I liable for the full market value of your ancient artifact mug?
Let’s keep going. Suppose you’re in the room with me when it happens. You see your priceless mug shatter in pieces on my floor. You run over in a panic to assess the damage, and in doing so you accidentally step on a shard of the mug, cutting your foot. Now surely I’m on the hook for the mug, but am I also liable for your injured foot? After all, you never would have been hurt if not for my dropping your mug in the first place.
We could even go one step further. Suppose your foot injury requires medical attention. You go to the hospital where you are treated by a doctor who mismanages your care. As a result, your foot becomes infected and must be amputated. Am I liable to you for that also? Sure, the doctor was negligent. But you never would have been in the hospital if not for my original act of breaking your mug.
This is where causation in the law gets complicated, and, in my opinion, interesting. Because the law actually recognizes two distinct dimensions of causation: “but for” causation and “proximate” causation.
One Must Establish that the Damages Would Not Have Occurred ‘But for’ Those Actions
“But for” causation is the idea that, in order to hold someone accountable for damages associated with their actions, it must be established that the damages would not have occurred “but for” those actions. So, all of the examples in the mug scenario above meet the “but for” test because none of those damages and injuries could have or would have occurred “but for” my dropping and breaking your mug.
But there’s more to it. We also have to look at proximate causation — that is, whether there was sufficient “proximity” between the actions and the damages, such that the damages would have been foreseeable to a reasonable actor, in this case, me. In the mug example, we need to look at each step separately to determine whether proximate causation is present for the purposes of assigning culpability.
In the beginning, I’m tossing and attempting to catch your mug. Would a reasonable person be able to foresee that, when tossing something fragile into the air, it might accidentally be dropped and broken? Of course. Proximate causation is really solid there.
Next, would a reasonable person know or suspect that an ordinary-looking coffee mug is actually a priceless ancient artifact? No, probably not. And this might be relevant to determining how much I actually owe you in damages for the broken mug.
There Is a Legal Precedent Which Holds That You ‘Take Your Victims as You Find Them’
It is important to note, however, that when it comes to harms caused to people in negligence cases, there is a legal precedent which holds that you “take your victims as you find them.” This means that if a person with pre-existing conditions (e.g., someone old and frail) sustains greater injury from a simple fall than an otherwise younger, healthier person would, you are still responsible for the actual injuries. That is because the law protects victims from recovery limitations due to circumstances beyond their own control.
By contrast, however, if the person who sustained injuries was voluntarily intoxicated at the time of the fall, this probably wouldn’t be viewed in court in the same light due to the element of choice involved in the circumstances.
Moving to the next step in our mug scenario, is proximate causation present if you cut your foot and suffer injury because of the broken mug? Perhaps, if I had reason to suspect that you would rush over without looking and step on the broken mug. But if I had no reason to know you would do that, this would probably be more appropriately construed as either an intervening or superseding cause. The exact definitions and distinctions of these terms are legally complex, but suffice to say these are the kinds of causes that break the normal chain of foreseeable causation in the eyes of the actor.
Likewise, with the irresponsible doctor at the hospital. Was there any way I could have foreseen that 1) I would drop the mug, 2) the mug would break, 3) you would step on the broken mug and hurt your foot, 4) you would need hospital attention, 5) you would be seen by a negligent physician, which would 6 ) result in the amputation of your foot? Of course not, so it would be very unlikely that I would be found liable for all of those damages, though the doctor would almost certainly shoulder some responsibility.
As we’ve seen, causation in the law is complicated and interesting. And intuition doesn’t hold much water at all. The legal nuances of “but for” and “proximate” causation go far beyond the scope of this article. There are a lot of unique “what if” scenarios that have been fleshed out by case law. But these basic principles are essential for anyone thinking about accountability, legal or otherwise.
So the next time you think about cause and effect in your own life, keep these ideas in mind. Give cause and effect the patient analysis it deserves.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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