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: