Proximate cause is one of the elements of determining whether a party is liable for negligence. On the surface, causation would seem easy to understand, yet lawyers and courts around the country have been unable to arrive at a single, precise meaning. Even highly respected judges get confused by the topic – the state Supreme Court of Wisconsin once admitted in 1927 that it found the matter baffling. Berrafato v. Exner, 194 Wis. 149, 157, 216 N.W. 165, 168 (1927).
Any time the law considers whether a person is liable for a negligent act, it must consider the two parts of causation - cause in fact and cause at law - the latter of which is known as proximate cause. The cause in fact is usually easy, and it need not be the complete or even direct cause. A partial or indirect cause will usually serve to establish factual cause. If I pull the trigger on a gun, that sets about a chain of events – the hammer pulls back, it impacts the shell, the charge in the shell explodes, propelling the bullet out of the gun at whatever happens to be in the way. My act of pulling the trigger is the factual cause of the shooting at issue. Or, in the alternative, if I am one of a mob, and due to riots sparked by the mob, a store burns down, my participation in the mob is a factual cause of the fire. The opening lines of one poem show us factual cause in the extreme:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the rider was lost;
For want of the rider, the battle was lost;
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail
In cases where the factual cause is remote, or problematic in some other way, proximate cause becomes more important. Proximate cause is, in effect, the factual cause plus some moral component. At its essence, proximate cause is a question: is it fair to hold the defendant liable even if factual cause has been proven? Is it fair to hold the blacksmith liable for the loss of a kingdom, when all he may have done wrong was fail to pound a horseshoe nail completely tight?
Every law student learns a famous case dealing with proximate cause: Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co., 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (1928). In the Palsgraf case, a railroad employee dropped a package from an outgoing train. The package happened to contain fireworks. The fireworks exploded, causing debris to fly about the platform and injure poor Mrs. Palsgraf, a passenger standing on the other side of the platform waiting to buy a ticket.
In this particular case, the Court decided that Mrs. Palsgraf ought not to receive compensation since her injury was not a foreseeable result of the railroad’s neglience. In his famous dissent, Judge Andrews commented on probable cause:
An overturned lantern may burn all Chicago. We may follow the fire from the shed to the last building. We rightly say the fire started by the lantern caused its destruction. A cause, but not the proximate cause.
Essentially, Judge Andrews advocated a test of remoteness in time and space – whether the result was too remote from the factual cause.
What is proximate cause? In my mind, it is a factual cause combined with a philosophical or fairness element. Mostly, it seems to be a matter of common sense.