WHAT DOES PROXIMATE CAUSE MEAN? –
In the context of personal injury claims, proximate cause is a term used to discuss the relationship between the event and the injuries claimed to have resulted from that event. The event is usually a type of negligence on behalf of a person or entity. Negligence is the failure to act in a reasonable manner when to do so is part of a legal duty one has to another person or group. For example, a driver has a legal duty to see what is there to be seen. Claiming that one could not see the line of stopped vehicles in front of him or the red light that is there to be seen will not negate the duty to stop in either instance. Once a breach of a legal duty has been established, the next question in a personal injury case is, did the incident proximately cause harm to the other party involved.
If a driver breaches their duty to stop at a red light and then narrowly misses striking a pedestrian, there is not necessarily a legal case to be had even though the driver was certainly a wrongdoer. The wrongdoing, however, did not cause any injury to the pedestrian in this circumstance.
If the pedestrian was on crutches and the wrongdoer strikes them while running a red light, then the next question will be what injuries were proximately caused by the event. The natural questions would involve why was the pedestrian on crutches, were they injured before being struck, and to what extent did the event make their pre-existing injuries worse or cause new injuries?
Some questions of proximate cause are easy – such as what were the new injuries that one had never had before being struck by the vehicle. But the pre-existing problems and what would have happened with their natural course of healing are different. Now we must ask whether or not the injuries would have healed better “but for” having been through another injurious event.
Not every remote cause of an injury will be deemed a “proximate cause.” What if another motorist saw the entire thing and was made very upset by the driver running the red light and striking a pedestrian on crutches? A few minutes later, that driver hits a parked car and injures himself and believes it was because she was so distracted and upset by what she had seen. Here, it will be difficult to blame the negligence of the red-light running driver as while it may have been a factor, it would be unreasonable to conclude that the event proximately caused this subsequent event.
CAN TWO EVENTS BOTH BE A PROXIMATE CAUSE OF AN INJURY?
If two or more separate people breach a duty and each action is a proximate cause of your injury, you can recover from each person.
DOES COMPARATIVE NEGLIGENCE ELIMINATE PROXIMATE CAUSE?
Not necessarily. Washington is a comparative fault state. This means that a jury is allowed to assess negligence in percentage form to both the defendant and the person claiming injury. Both parties can be considered proximate causes of injuries in certain circumstances.
Any ambiguity in the ability to state, from a medical viewpoint, what the cause of an injury was, goes to the heart of a proximate cause analysis.
Below are the three pattern jury instructions that can be given regarding proximate cause in Washington (credit WESTLAW).