To succeed in court when seeking damages for a personal injury, a plaintiff must prove five things that have become the standard elements of this sort of civil claim. Generally, the standard of proof is by the preponderance of the evidence, which is considered to be significantly lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal cases.

Cause is a major question in personal injury law. In fact, two of the five elements relate to cause. One of them is called “cause in fact,” while the other is known as “proximate cause.” They are related, but different elements that must be discussed separately.

Cause in Fact

As the name of this element implies, a personal injury plaintiff must prove that the defendant actually caused his or her injuries. The law applies the “but-for” test: but for the defendant’s actions, would the plaintiff have suffered the injury? This can be trickier than it first appears, as the defendant seeks to avoid liability.

Proximate Cause

This element refers to the reasonable extent of the defendant’s responsibility not to harm the plaintiff. Some actions do not directly cause harm, but launch a series of events that lead to the accident.

Defendants can only be held liable for injuries that they can reasonably foresee. The more remote the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury, the more likely that the plaintiff will not be able to prove proximate cause.

In other words, a driver could reasonably expect to injure someone by rear-ending them at a red light. It may not be reasonable for the driver to foresee injuries caused when the same person slips and falls on a slippery floor at an auto repair shop a few days later, hurting herself. The defendant would likely argue that he had no reason to know the floor would be dangerous.

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