Negligence – Legal Causation

In order to prove a case in negligence, a party must be able to prove both legal and factual causation. In other words, the party must not only be able to prove that the actions of a party proved something but that the actions were also a legally sufficient cause to hold someone liable and find negligence. Factual and legal causation are said to be distinguished from each other in an effort to avert the danger of a defendant being exposed to “liability in an indeterminate amount for an indeterminate time to an indeterminate class,” according to Justice Cardozo.

Once a party has factually proven that the actions of the other party have caused his or her injuries, the question becomes one of legal causation. One of the key factors influencing legal causation is the remoteness of the person’s harm from the negligence of the other. A person’s negligence is too remote or not a “proximate cause” of another’s injury or damages if a reasonable person would never reasonably foresee it happening. The idea of legal causation is to prevent negligence damages being awarded in events where no one could foresee something bad happening and so take the necessary steps to avoid it.

In cases involving medical malpractice, proximate cause is something easier to prove, particularly in surgical errors. In failure to diagnose or missed diagnosis cases, the issue of proximate cause is not nearly as easy to prove since it’s not as easy to tell what the actual damages are. Surgical errors are much easier, unless an individual has undergone a lot of surgeries with a number of different doctors in a very limited period of time.

In medical malpractice cases, it is usually harder to prove that there was a breach than that the doctor who committed an error was negligent in terms of legal and factual cause. Determining the breach is more difficult since the error that was committed was not necessarily a monumental error or even identifiable as an error at the time it was committed. Causation is much easier to prove since there are typically very few surgeons capable of making an error on a person at one time. Damages are also usually somewhat simple to prove for the same reason. Depending on the case, particularly in surgery, it is simple to say “I have no feet because the doctor amputated the wrong one.” The damages in the case are clear. The difficult part, for the jury, is awarding monetary damages.