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What is 'proximate cause' in an Illinois personal injury case?

Those who are hurt in accidents, especially those accidents that occur on public roads, often face a tough period of life after the injuries. Between medical treatment costs, the pain and stress of being injured, the time lost from a job, and the expensive and time-consuming process of physical or occupational rehabilitation, it is easy for such victims to give up hope. However, they should remember that, depending on the circumstances of the accident, they may be entitled to compensation for these and possibly other costs.

We have previously discussed the concept of negligence, and the fact that this theory usually plays a large part in personal injury cases based upon injuries suffered in accidents. Readers may remember that we went over several elements of a negligence case. We've touched on legal duty, breach, and the first part of causation (cause-in-fact) in prior posts. In this installment, we will take a very brief look at the second kind of causation that must be present for a negligence suit to succeed: 'proximate cause.'

As we've pointed out before, proximate cause is generally the more complex of the two types of causation. This is partly because cause-in-fact is what most people think of when it comes to an everyday definition of causation. That is, did what the defendant do actually create the circumstances that led to the plaintiff's injury? Proximate cause on the other hand, is a more public policy-driven requirement in which it is asked whether we want to hold the individual legally responsible for consequences that are particularly remote from their actions.

Basically, while cause in fact asks if the defendant caused the injuries, proximate cause asks if those injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant's conduct. For example, while it may be foreseeable that running a red light will cause injuries when two vehicles collide, if the wheel of one vehicle rolls down a hill, hits a fireworks stand, causing a fireworks box to fall into a lit grill, and those fireworks ignite, injuring students in a school next to the fireworks stand, the injuries to those children, while being caused by the car crash, may not be of the type for which we want to hold a person responsible, as they may not have been reasonably foreseeable results of the negligent conduct.

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