What is Proximate Cause in a Car Accident Case?

Learn how fault for a car accident often comes down to figuring out whose conduct was the "proximate cause" of the crash.

Updated By David Goguen, J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law

In the context of a car accident case, the concept of "proximate cause" refers to the act (or failure to act) that was the legal cause of the auto accident, and led to all resulting injuries and vehicle damage. It's not a concept that's well-understood by non-lawyers, but proximate cause may come into the discussion when both sides of an insurance claim or lawsuit are debating the key issues of liability and fault for a car accident. Read on to learn more.

Proximate Cause and "Cause-In-Fact"

First, it's important to note that a traffic accident may have both a proximate cause and a "cause-in-fact" component, and these are not always one and the same. This can be a little confusing, so an example might help.

If the vehicle next to you swerves into your lane for no reason, collides with your car, and you sustain an injury, then the vehicle swerving into you is both the proximate cause and the "cause-in-fact" of your injury. So, any car insurance claim or car accident lawsuit arising out of the injury would focus on attributing liability to the driver of the swerving vehicle. Had it not been for the negligent manner in which the swerving driver was operating his vehicle, your injuries would not have occurred (proximate cause), and the driver's negligent operation of his vehicle resulted in your injuries (that was the "cause-in-fact"). (Learn more about Negligence, the Duty of Care, and Fault for an Accident.)

But what if the swerving vehicle was trying to avoid a jaywalker? In this situation, the swerving vehicle is the "cause-in-fact" of your injuries, but were it not the jaywalker stepping into the street, the swerving driver would not have collided with you. So the jaywalker -- not the swerving driver -- would likely be considered the proximate cause of your injuries. (More: Can a Pedestrian Be At Fault for a Car Accident?)

Determining Proximate Cause for a Car Accident

In some of the more common car accident scenarios, as with a rear-end accident, it's not necessary to differentiate between different kinds of "cause." But figuring out the proximate cause of a car accident injury can become necessary in some instances, and it can be a difficult proposition.

In multi-vehicle accidents, the proximate cause of your injuries can be removed from the actual "cause in fact" of the accident that led to your injury. Car accidents can involve complex chains of events -- this pedestrian steps into the intersection, as this bicyclist runs a stop sign, as this driver is speeding, and as this other driver can't see properly through the sun's glare on a dirty windshield. And in the hours and days after a car accident, you may not even be aware of the proximate (legal) cause of the crash (where actual liability lies, in other words).

Often, an injured person will file a third party insurance claim or lawsuit against the person whose action/inaction appears to be the "cause in fact" of the accident, and if there are more complex causation questions -- in other words, whether the "cause in fact" and "proximate cause" of the accident are different -- those questions will be resolved through claim investigation and the discovery process. If another party needs to be brought into the claim/suit, that's always an option later on.

For instance, returning to our example of the other vehicle swerving into your lane, if you file a third party insurance claim or lawsuit against that driver, and an investigation reveals that the driver only swerved in an effort to avoid a jaywalking pedestrian, then you (and the other driver) will want to make sure that the pedestrian is brought into the claim/lawsuit as a potentially liable party. Learn more about common causes of car accidents.

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