UPDATED: February 4, 2020
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An intervening cause is a separate action that breaks the direct connection between the actions of the defendant and a loss or injury to another person. Usually intervening causes are actions by a third party or natural occurrence that alter the circumstances of accident. As a result, intervening cause may be used as a legal defense in a civil lawsuit.
Nature of Intervening Causes
In a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff must demonstrate through the facts of his or her case, that the defendant was negligent, and that the defendant’s negligent behavior was the cause of the harm that the plaintiff suffered. A defendant may generally be able to avoid liability by showing that there was an event that took place in the time between the defendant's actions and the plaintiff's injury that was sufficient to replace the defendant as the actual cause of the harm the plaintiff suffered. This event is the intervening cause.
The existence of an intervening event does not automatically mean it will get the defendant off the hook. Foreseeability is often the key to the validity of an intervening cause. If the foreseeability of the harmful act itself, and of the injury that was caused, are established regardless of the intervening event, then the defendant is likely liable regardless.
Examples of Intervening Causes
Not all events can be used as an intervening cause to avoid liability. The event as well as the resulting injury must have been unforeseeable to a reasonable person. For example, imagine that Neighbor A's house is being renovated, and that he asks Neighbor B if he might store his car in Neighbor B’s driveway during the renovation. Neighbor B agrees. One day, Neighbor B decides to park A's car on the street in order to do a project in her driveway. She leaves the car parked on the street for several days, during which time a hurricane blows through the area, damaging the car.
Neighbor A sues Neighbor B for the damage to his car, claiming she was negligent and careless to park the car on the street rather than keeping it in the driveway. Neighbor B responds that the hurricane was an intervening cause between her negligence and the damage to the car and that, in actuality, the hurricane was the actual cause of the harm to the car. Neighbor B can further assert that it was unforeseeable that the car would be damaged by moving it from the driveway to the street. Such a defense could help Neighbor B avoid liability for the damage done to Neighbor A's car.
If you are a defendant in a lawsuit, and you believe that an intervening cause is responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, talk to a qualified personal injury attorney. An attorney experienced in negligence lawsuits could help you determine whether the facts of your case support using an intervening cause as a defense.