We recently posted an article on the requirement that liability must be found before damages will be awarded. One element of liability is causation. This can be a complex issue even for law students. However, the basics are pretty straightforward. But as they say, the devil is in details.
First, “causation” means exactly what it sounds like. It is the act, omission or condition (hereinafter the “thing”) that caused the injuries or harm. However, it is important to know that the thing that caused the injuries or harm need not be the only cause. There can be multiple contributory factors that led to the injuries.
However, even though there might be multiple contributory factors, it must be the case that the injuries would not have occurred but for the thing alleged to have caused them. If the injuries would have occurred with or without it, then it is not a cause of the injuries under the New Mexico Jury Instructions.
Where it gets more complicated is in cases of independent intervening causation. This would be the case when a course of action or chain of events is set into motion, but an independent intervening cause actually causes the injuries. It is not the case that the original act did not cause the injury in the sense that the chain of events was set into motion, it is that there was a completely “unforeseeable force” that was neither in operation nor expected at the time of the original action. In New Mexico, independent intervening cause is rare and would typically be found, if at all, only where cause is interrupted by a force of nature, an intentional tort or criminal behavior.
For instance, a person injured in an auto accident may need to get medical treatment. During that medical treatment, the person may be injured further by medical negligence. The medical negligence is not, under New Mexico law, an independent intervening cause that would sever liability for the original negligent driver. In fact, it has been stated that medical negligence happens frequently enough that it is in fact foreseeable making the original negligent party at least in part responsible for the subsequent injuries.
On a related note, New Mexico is a pure comparative law state. This means that the liability for the injuries will be apportioned between the various parties that are responsible for the injuries. Unlike states following a contributory negligence standard, this means that the injured person might even be partially responsible for his or her injuries and still recover for that portion of the injuries caused by another.
However, in the end, there must be causation. The thing that is alleged to have caused the injuries must be “reasonably connected as a significant link to the injury…” In other words, the causal link cannot be so attenuated that it bears no reasonable connection to the injury despite the fact that it somehow occurred close in time or place or was otherwise a link in the chain of events leading up the injuries.
Causation is often pretty easy to determine. However, it can quickly become quite complicated in a number of ways depending on the circumstances of the accident and the victim. These complications are too numerous to address here, but suffice it to say that it is highly advisable to seek the guidance of an experienced personal injury attorney in any case involving serious personal injuries or wrongful death.