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In the law, a proximate cause is an event sufficiently related to a legally recognizable injury to be held to be the cause of that injury. There are two types of causation in the law: cause-in-fact, and proximate (or legal) cause. Cause-in-fact is determined by the "but for" test: But for the action, the result would not have happened.

The list of causesEdit

A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. This exists in contrast to a higher-level ultimate cause (or distal cause) which is usually thought of as the "real" reason something occurred.

  • Example: Why did the ship sink?
    • Proximate cause: Because it was holed beneath the waterline, water entered the hull and the ship became denser than the water which supported it, so it could not stay afloat.
    • Ultimate cause: Because the ship hit a rock which tore open the hole in the ship's hull.

In most situations, an ultimate cause may itself be a proximate cause for a further ultimate cause. Hence we can continue the above example as follows:

  • Example: Why did the ship hit the rock?
    • Proximate cause: Because the ship failed to change course to avoid it.
    • Ultimate cause: Because the ship was under autopilot and the autopilot's data was inaccurate.
    • (even stronger): Because the shipwrights made mistakes in the ship's construction.
    • (stronger yet): Because the scheduling of labor at the shipyard allows for very little rest.
    • (in absurdum): Because the shipyard's owners have very small profit margins in an ever-shrinking market.

Separating proximate from ultimate causation frequently leads to better understandings of the events and systems concerned.


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