Proximate Cause - Does anyone really understand it?

Posted Tuesday, December 20, 2016 by Ed Harper

Proximate Cause - Does anyone really understand this legal phrase?

Washington Pattern Instruction (WPI) 15.01 states the following: “The term ‘proximate cause’ means a cause which in a direct sequence [unbroken by any superseding cause,] produces the [injury][event] complained of and without such [injury][event] would not have happened.” So here, the instruction from the bench attempts to articulate the most misunderstood concept in tort law. Proximate cause is deemed to be referring to a close relationship or nexus to an event. A British Judge, Lord Chancellor Bacon, in 1630 used the Latin phrase “causa proxima” or the law looks to the near cause – hence “proximate cause”. This instruction in essence is used to establish an event with sufficient a closeness in time argument, or proximity to an event. (Prosser & Keeton on Torts, section 42, at p. 273, fn. omitted.)

This applies to a negligence cause of action, where one has to establish duty, breach, proximate cause and damages. Looking at this individually, the breach of a duty is the failure to use reasonable care; damages can be the financial or physical effects of an injury; and proximate cause is the link between the two. Without proximate cause, you always lose your tort claim.

Thus, when incidents are convoluted in how they occurred, the defendant will sit back and attempt to show an inability of the plaintiff to establish proximate cause.

One such case is Schooley V. Pinch’s Deli Market 134 Wn.2d 468, 951 P.2d 749 (1998). This case involved the sale of alcohol to a minor. The court delved into the intricacy of the challenging issue of proximate cause when a young lady (Lori Schooley) was catastrophically injured when she dove into a shallow pool causing her quadriplegia. The issue in the case was whether the defendant, Pinch’s Deli, could be held liable for the injury to Ms. Schooley. Ms. Schooley, a minor, had been drinking alcohol provided to her by another minor. Ms. Schooley had no direct contact with the deli as the deli did not directly sell her the alcohol. However, another teenager provided the alcohol after purchasing the beer at Pinch’s Deli illegally.

Defendant Pinch’s Deli attempted to argue their actions were not the legal cause of Ms. Schooley’s injuries as their actions were too remote in time to be linked to the diving into the pool by Ms. Schooley. The Supreme Court of Washington disagreed, finding there was a duty owed to others who may imbibe the illegally obtained alcohol, and therefore there was a sufficient nexus to the incident in question. In other words, the drinking of alcohol by other minors was foreseeable when Pinch’s failed to act reasonably in failing to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors. Thus, the court held the deli’s actions were sufficiently related to the horrific injury of Ms. Schooley.

Therefore, proximate cause can be found and established. One of the underlying reasons for this includes the overriding public policy in seeking to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors and thus usage of alcohol by minors. Here, the prevention of the sale of alcohol to a minor is so important as a society we want to prevent this from occurring.

Thus, to hold the Deli is within the ambit of our society’s goal to restrict the usage of these illegal substances. The question must be answered affirmatively “The focus is on whether, as a matter of policy, the connection between the ultimate result and the act of the defendant is too remote or insubstantial to impose liability.” Schooley, at 478-479

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