The Element of Causation in Personal Injury Cases in Washington, D.C.

To successfully bring a Washington, D.C. personal injury case, a plaintiff must be able to prove not just that the defendant was negligent but also that the defendant’s negligence was the cause of their injuries. While the concept of causation may sound like a straightforward determination, in practice, the element can be exceedingly complex.

Causation can be broken down into two separate inquiries, the first being “but for” causation, or cause-in-fact. To satisfy the cause-in-fact element, the plaintiff must show that absent the defendant’s negligence, the accident would not have occurred. In most cases, cause-in-fact is not difficult to establish.

The second part of a causation inquiry is called proximate cause, or legal cause. Not only is proximate cause much more complicated, but it is also more challenging to prove. Proximate cause requires that a plaintiff prove that the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s injuries are sufficiently related to say that the defendant’s actions were the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

There are many situations in which a plaintiff’s case meets the cause-in-fact element but fails to meet the proximate cause element. In general, the question is whether the harm that befell the plaintiff was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s negligence. If so, it is likely that the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

A recent decision issued by a state appellate court discusses a somewhat unique situation in which the plaintiff’s claim against the defendant did not meet either the cause-in-fact or the proximate cause element.

In that case, the plaintiff hired the defendant to install a smoke detector system. A year after the installation, a fire started in the plaintiff’s home when she left chicken cooking on the stove as she fell asleep on the couch. When the plaintiff woke up to a smoke-filled house, she hurriedly tried to put out the flame and burned her hand. As it turns out, the smoke detector did not go off, and it was later determined that the smoke detector was not installed correctly. The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant.

The court determined that the defendant’s potential negligence in failing to install the smoke detector correctly was neither the cause-in-fact nor the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The court explained that the evidence presented by the plaintiff did not establish that she would have been able to safely put out the fire if the defendant had properly installed the smoke alarm. The court noted that there was no evidence showing how much earlier a correctly installed alarm would have gone off, and whether that would have been enough time to attend to the fire before it got out of hand.

Have You Been Injured in a Washington, D.C. Accident?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured due to a dangerous product, or an improperly installed product or appliance, the dedicated Washington, D.C. product liability lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC can help. We have over 20 years of extensive experience helping victims recover financial compensation from those who are responsible for their injuries. To learn more, call 410-654-3600 to schedule a free consultation today.

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