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Drawing a Line Somewhere: Proximate Cause


Drawing a Line Somewhere: Proximate Cause


One of the nice things about the inch is that virtually everyone who has anything to do with one agrees about what it is. While it is a purely human construct, an idea, we have achieved such wide consensus about its meaning that we can use the term effectively without wasting energy arguing about its definition. This is probably true for the vast majority of concepts we manipulate through language. If it weren’t, language wouldn’t communicate much and people would rebel and vote in a new one.

Unfortunately, proximate cause is the exception that proves the rule (please excuse the pun). A great deal of confusion persists about what the term “proximate cause” is meant to convey. Students find this very frustrating: Justifiably, you would like some answers, some solid ground on which to base an understanding of a difficult concept.

Yet, if exact definition eludes us (as it does, of course, for other useful concepts, like “negligence” or “justice”) we can still achieve a working knowledge of the problem sufficient for most purposes. This chapter seeks such a working knowledge of “proximate cause.”


Despite differences in approach to proximate cause, all courts agree that the crux of the problem is that defendants cannot be held liable for every consequence of their conduct, even if that conduct is negligent. Here are a few examples in which courts would likely balk at imposing liability:[1]

  • Defendant store owner leaves a box lid on the sidewalk. Plaintiff stumbles over it, skins her knee, and stops to get first aid. Consequently, she misses her train and gets a later one. She is injured when that train crashes into another at a crossing.
  • Defendant, a restaurant owner, leaves a box of rat poison on a shelf near the stove that is used to store food. Although the owner had no reason to expect it, the poison explodes due to heat from the stove, injuring a customer.
  • Defendant drives negligently, and collides with plaintiff, causing him injuries. Plaintiff is taken to the hospital, where he is further injured three days later when the hospital burns.

[1] [ft] Many of the examples in this chapter are drawn from cases discussed in Judge Robert Keeton’s helpful book, Legal Cause in the Law of Torts (1963).

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