What is proximate cause?

The plaintiff in a products liability case must prove that the product was defective when it left the defendant’s hands and that the defect proximately caused the injury. A defect has been said to be a proximate cause of an injury if the injury was a direct, natural, or probable result of the defect’s existence. The issue of causation in a products liability case can be complicated, especially if the defect in the product involved was an indirect or remote cause, or only one of a number of potential causes. The determination of whether the defendant’s negligence or breach of warranty proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries is very much dependent on the facts of the particular case.

When the evidence indicates that the injury could have resulted from a number of causes, the question becomes whether the cause for which the defendant is responsible was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. For instance, if the plaintiff was burned when she removed the glass pot from a drip coffee maker to pour a cup of coffee and the pot separated from the handle, a defect in the way the handle was attached to the pot could be one cause, but the fact that the plaintiff had previously dropped the pot on the floor and had heated it on the stove top, contrary to the manufacturer’s instructions, would also have to be considered.

As noted in the example given above, the plaintiff’s misuse of a product can affect the proximate-cause analysis. Likewise, if the plaintiff has altered a product, that alteration, rather than a product defect, may be deemed the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. If the defendant should have anticipated that its product could be misused or altered in the way that it was, however, and could have guarded or warned against that possibility, it may still be liable for the plaintiff’s damages.