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What is 'proximate cause' in personal injury law?

The typical personal injury case, for example a medical malpractice claim, requires the plaintiff to prove five elements, usually by the preponderance of the evidence. One of those elements is known as “proximate cause.” Proximate cause measures the scope of the defendant’s responsibility for an event that caused injury to the plaintiff.

In order to prevail in a medical malpractice suit, the plaintiff must sufficiently convince the judge or jury that his or her injury was the reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant’s negligence. If the plaintiff’s damages are found to have been outside the scope of the risks that the defendant could reasonably have foreseen, the claim fails.

“Scope” can be a fairly fluid thing to measure. In the medical context, it may be reasonably easy to foresee that leaving a surgical sponge inside a patient will lead to harm. But other medical decisions may be so far removed on the subsequent chain of events to the injury that the doctor, nurse or other medical professional could not have predicted it.

Let us use a more general example. If a worker loading bags of grain onto a truck negligently strikes a child with one of the bags, and the child is hurt as a result, those injuries are likely easily foreseeable. But say the bag of grain hits the child’s bicycle instead, leaving him unhurt but causing minor damage to the bike.

A few days later, the boy’s mother agrees to drive him to the repair shop to get the bike fixed. On the way to the shop, the two are hit by another car and the boy is badly injured. Likely, it would be hard to prove that the man who threw the bag was the proximate cause of the boy’s injuries.

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