Causation in a Motor Vehicle Accident

January 30, 2023 | - News & Insights

An experienced North Carolina motor vehicle accident attorney is often the best bet to help establish or refute causation. 

The Elements of a Negligence Claim 

Most motor vehicle accident litigation proceeds on a theory of negligence, which requires the plaintiff to prove the following four elements: 

  • Duty: The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff
  • Breach: The defendant breached that duty of care
  • Causation: The defendant’s breach was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury
  • Damages: The plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the breach

In the context of motor vehicle accidents, the duty owed is the duty to use ordinary care to protect others from injury. This generally equates to the degree of care that a reasonable and prudent person would use under the same or similar circumstances. A breach in this context generally means that the defendant violated a traffic law or otherwise failed to exercise ordinary care. Damages in motor vehicle accident cases typically include medical expenses, damage to property, loss of earnings, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium, among others. 

The Causation Element 

The causation element of negligence requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s breach of duty was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. While this sounds fairly straightforward, causation can be one of the most challenging elements of negligence to prove. Without the plaintiff proving causation, the defendant cannot be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. While “causation” is typically considered a single element of negligence, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach was both the actual cause and the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. 

Actual Cause

Actual causation (also referred to as cause-in-fact) is the simpler of the two concepts. To prove actual cause, the plaintiff must show that the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s actions. To illustrate, assume that a speeding driver, while attempting to pass a slower car, careens onto the sidewalk and strikes a pedestrian. The pedestrian would not have been injured but for the driver’s speeding. Therefore, the defendant’s actions likely would be considered the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries in this case. 

Proximate Cause

Proximate causation requires the plaintiff to show that the injury caused was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s behavior. It is the more complex of the two types of causation and generally becomes an issue in cases where a chain of events leads to the plaintiff’s injury. To illustrate, assume that a driver runs a red light and t-bones the plaintiff’s car, causing injury. T-boning a car is a foreseeable consequence of running a red light and likely would be both the actual and proximate cause of the injury. However, now assume that instead of hitting another car, the driver hits a utility pole, which falls and causes a blackout in the area. During the blackout, a resident falls down the stairs in her home and suffers a broken arm. Because a person falling down the stairs is not a foreseeable consequence of running a red light, a proximate cause likely would not be established here. 

How to Refute Causation After a Motor Vehicle Accident

Plaintiffs have a wide variety of evidence at their disposal to establish causation after a motor vehicle accident. However, there are also a few legal methods available to defendants to refute causation. In addition to challenging the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s evidence of causation, defendants may also argue: 

  • Intervening cause: The intervening cause doctrine arises where the defendant argues that a separate event that occurs after his or her own breach, such as the actions of a third party or an act of God, breaks the chain of causation and becomes the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. In some cases, an intervening event can insulate the defendant from liability. 
  • Contributory negligence: The doctrine of contributory negligence is often invoked where the plaintiff was partially at fault for the accident that led to his or her injuries. In North Carolina, negligence by the plaintiff is an absolute bar to recovery, even where the plaintiff was only 1% at fault. 

The best way to establish (or refute) causation in these cases is with the assistance of an experienced attorney. For more information, please contact a North Carolina motor vehicle accident attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.

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Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby, P.A.

325 Pollock Street, PO Drawer 1168,
New Bern, NC 28563

Tel: 252-638-6666
Fax: 252-638-3542

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