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More about negligence and medical malpractice law

In our last blog post, we discussed the five elements of negligence, and went into a bit of detail on the first two: duty and breach of duty. Today, we will explore the next two elements that plaintiffs must prove to win in court: cause in fact and proximate cause.

These elements both deal with what caused the incident that injured the plaintiff. But they come at this question in different ways, which is why they are separate elements.

To prove “cause in fact,” the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s actions caused the plaintiff’s injury. A simple way of thinking about this is to apply the “but-for” test: but for the defendant’s conduct, would the plaintiff’s injury have occurred?

The defendant’s actions need not directly lead to the injury, such as when a driver runs a red light and hits a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Instead, if the defendant could have reasonably foreseen that his actions would cause injury to someone else, he or she could be liable for the plaintiff’s damages. This concept is known as “proximate cause.” The more remote the defendant’s conduct was from the plaintiff’s injury, the less likely the plaintiff will be able to prove proximate cause. For instance, something the defendant did an hour before the plaintiff was hurt is more likely to be part of the “chain of causation” than something the defendant did four days prior.

Sometimes, proving cause in fact and proximate cause is relatively straightforward. But other times, the issue is highly technical. Either way, the defendant, such as an accused physician or hospital, needs a vigorous legal defense.

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