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What Does Causality Mean in a Legal Context?

Prior to law school, I doubt that I had ever heard of the term causality, at least not in a legal context. However, the term’s basic meaning—something that brings about a result or occurrence—is not too different from what the word means to a lawyer. In a legal context, the term causality generally refers to the relationship between the allegedly negligent act and the resulting injury.

Specifically, the victim of the tort must show that there is some “causal connection” between the actions committed by the tortfeasor, such as failing to clear snow and ice from a driveway or failing to fix a corroded staircase. The question is whether this negligence proximately led to the injury. That question constitutes the second element of the Jury Verdict Slip, as I have previously blogged. Cases can be lost on this question, whether medical malpractice or slip-and-falls or indeed any injury case.

If the jury finds negligence, they are then asked: whether or not the defendant’s negligence was a “substantial factor” in causing the plaintiff’s injuries. This demonstrates that while a defendant’s actions might have been negligent, the jury must still find a causal connection between the negligence of the defendant and the injuries suffered by the plaintiff.

This is the notion of proximate cause. It is complicated and can be difficult for people to understand. It is interwoven with the idea of “foreseeability.” The question is how foreseeable it was to the tortfeasor that his or her actions would result in injury to the tort victim. For example, it is common knowledge that snow and ice can be slick, causing people to fall, thus it should be foreseeable to a landlord that his failure to clear snow and ice from the driveway would create a dangerous condition for those crossing over the driveway. In this way, the plaintiff’s attorney argues that the second question should be answered by the jury in the affirmative.

Causality also has meaning in the medical context. The injuries must be causally connected to the accident. This typically is argued by the parties when the client has a significant pre-existing condition. The battle becomes whether the accident was a substantial contributing cause of the injury. Not surprisingly, the insurance company argues that the accident was an irrelevancy; the pre-existing condition, in their view, accounts for the client’s medical troubles. Whether liability or damages is involved in the causality argument, we would be wise to consider the language that must be satisfied.

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