Proximate Cause: Definition, Examples & Criminology

Proximate Cause: Definition, Examples & Criminology
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  • 0:01 Proximate Cause & Causation
  • 1:42 Criminology
  • 2:32 Examples
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

Proximate cause is a legal concept that relates to the connection between an injury and the event that caused the injury. This lesson discusses the basic definition of proximate cause and provides some examples of the concept.

Proximate Cause and Causation

Proximate cause relates to the relationship between an event and an injury. In the context of the law, there must be a sufficient relationship between an event (or act) and a resulting injury in order to prove legal responsibility (known as 'liability'). This concept is known as causation.

There are two types of causation: cause-in-fact causation and proximate cause.

Cause-in-fact causation can be best described as a 'but-for' chain reaction: But for the action, the injury would not have occurred. For example, but for Jane turning left at the red light, the car crash would not have happened.

While cause-in-fact causation is a relatively straightforward concept, proximate cause is harder to define. If someone suffers an injury that they believe was caused by another person's actions, the injured party (the plaintiff) may want to sue the actor (the defendant) for damages like medical bills or lost wages. But in order to prevail in court, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant is liable for his injuries. The same concept applies in a criminal prosecution - that is, the government must prove that the defendant caused the victim's injury or death. This is where proximate cause comes into play.

The proximate cause of an injury is the event or act closely related to the injury. This doesn't mean that the act in question must be the closest in time to the injury. Instead, it must be the primary, or predominant, cause of the injury. In order to prove that a defendant is liable for the plaintiff's injury, there must be proof that the defendant's action was the proximate cause of the injury. Since any action can set off a long sequence of unforeseeable consequences, proximate cause limits the scope of a defendant's liability.


The most common way to determine proximate cause is by asking yourself the following question: was the victim's injury a foreseeable consequence of the defendant's action? If the answer is 'yes,' then you can conclude that the act was the proximate cause of the injury. This is known as the foreseeability test for proximate cause.

When you think of proximate cause, imagine a row of dominoes. When the first domino is tipped, it knocks over the second domino, which knocks over the third, and so on. Tipping the first domino was the proximate cause of the falling of the second domino - it represents the most closely related event. As more and more dominoes fall, it becomes harder to attribute the chain reaction solely to the first domino.

Proximate cause is a legal concept used to limit the scope of liability. Otherwise, a seemingly innocent act may result in unlimited liability for any number of unforeseen consequences.

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