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'Cause in fact' in California personal injury

Negligence is a term that can be thrown around a lot. In California and elsewhere, people often use the word to mean simple carelessness. While this definition is not wrong, and indeed, legal negligence does have a strong correlation to carelessness. In a courtroom setting there are several aspects of the theory that need to be shown in order to prevail in a lawsuit, whether based on an auto accident or other personal injury situation. We previously touched on the basics of a negligence case, and a few weeks ago we briefly discussed a couple of the elements that need to be shown, namely 'duty' and 'breach.'

Another major aspect to negligence cases, however, is that of causation. Just because an injury occurred, it does not necessarily follow that someone is to blame. Just as a plaintiff needs to show that someone did something wrong in the form of breaching a legal duty, he or she must also be able to prove that the breach also caused the injuries in question.

There are generally two parts to causation in California, one of which is known as 'cause in fact.' Cause in fact is the term for what most of us think of when we think of cause and effect. That is, one must consider whether the action (or inaction) lead to the effect. Another way to think about this is to ask if "but for the breach of the legal duty, would the injuries have occurred?" If not, then cause in fact has generally been established.

It should be noted that this is the more straightforward of the causation elements. As long as the breach led to injuries in question, no matter how attenuated the line of events, cause in fact has been established. However, this does not end the inquiry into legal causation in a negligence case, as there is also the element of 'proximate cause,' which will have to do with the 'foreseeability' of the injury. This is a topic we may take up in a later post.

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