Actual and Proximate Causation in Auto Accidents

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Car accidents occur for a multitude of reasons, most of them attributable to driver error. However, there are instances when an accident is not foreseeable, or when who or what exactly caused the accident is in dispute. It can be difficult to determine what actually caused the crash, but if causation cannot be proven, it is near impossible to mount a successful personal injury case.

Actual vs. “Proximate” Cause

In South Carolina negligence law, causation is one of the elements that must be proven in order to show that a defendant was negligent. However, actually proving it can be quite complex, because in many cases causation has two aspects. Accidents have an actual cause, also known as cause in fact, and many have what is referred to as a proximate cause.

Proximate cause is defined as an act from which foreseeable consequences stem, without any superseding or intervening action from another actor. For example, if A hits a stop sign in her car, which then falls over and crushes B’s leg, A’s actions are the actual cause of B’s injuries, but because it is not generally foreseeable that a sign would fall and cause significant harm, they are not the proximate cause.

Sometimes, actual and proximate causation stem from the same action – for example, if a semi-truck driver strikes a car due to poor driving from lack of sleep, the truck driver’s actions are both the actual cause, and the proximate cause, because no other actor intervened.


The key factor that you as a plaintiff should be aware of is the question of unforeseeability. If the actions that caused your injury were not foreseeable for one reason or another, you may be unable to collect compensation. It is good public policy not to penalize someone for actions they could not foresee.

If a defendant’s actions cause harm, but the harm is not foreseeable, they will not be found liable. The most common reasons for this are twofold. First, in situations when the defendant’s actions might be the proximate cause of harm, the harm suffered may be so extraordinary that it could not have been foreseen. This is the category into which “force majeure” actions fall – for example, if a defendant negligently left wood and hay lying next to a gas-powered farm machine, one might assume reasonably that fire is a foreseeable risk. However, if a fire starts due to a lightning strike, the defendant would not be liable, because it would have been impossible to predict lightning striking in that exact place.

The second is when foreseeable harm happens, but it is to an unforeseen extent or of an unforeseen type. For example, if a truck hauling explosive materials is struck by a car, the car’s driver would be liable for the injuries the trucker sustained in the car accident itself, but likely not for any injuries related to the cargo exploding.

The exception to this statement is the so-called “eggshell plaintiff” rule, which states that a defendant must take his plaintiff as he finds him. The case of Raino v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (1992) states explicitly that if a plaintiff has a pre-existing condition, and it is made worse, they are entitled to recover for those injuries, regardless of whether or not they were foreseeable.

Seek Experienced Legal Assistance

The legal niceties inherent in determining whether or not you have a case can confuse even the most intelligent person. A skilled auto accident lawyer can help cut through the confusion, and guide you through the lawsuit process toward what can hopefully be a favorable outcome. The dedicated North Charleston car accident attorneys at Callihan & Syracuse have many years of experience with these cases, and will do our best to help you. Contact us for an appointment today.