Legal Cause

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Negligence is not a ground of liability unless it causes injury or damage to some interest which the law recognizes and protects. Moreover, it does not make a defendant liable for any injury or damage that is not a consequence of the negligence. The establishment of the requisite causal connection is therefore an element of a plaintiff's cause of action for negligence, to be pleaded and proven by him. And where a cause of action exists, the question of causal connection will determine the scope of liability--the extent of the injury or damage for which defendant will have to pay. The question then naturally arises what is the kind of causal connection or relationship that the law requires to be proven. Obviously the legal test includes a requirement that the wrongful conduct must be a cause in fact of the harm; but if this stood alone the scope of liability would be vast indeed, for "the causes of causes [are] infinite'---"the fatal trespass done by Eve was cause of all our woe." But the law has not stopped there--it has developed further restrictions and limitations. The concept this development has produced is generally called "proximate" or "legal" cause. To be sure this concept is only one of the devices used to limit the fact and the extent of liability for negligence. In the progress of negligence law, however, the concept of proximate cause has been greatly overworked to limit or control both the liability of defendant and the effect of contributory negligence because of many considerations which can be treated in a more meaningful and significant way in connection with other issues, such as that of duty, standard of conduct and the like. "Having no integrated meaning of its own, [the] chameleon quality [of proximate cause] permits it to be substituted for any one of the elements of a negligence case when decision on that element becomes difficult. . . . No other formula . . . so nearly does the work of Aladdin's lamp." The result has been a widely recognized confusion, and as luxuriant a crop of legal literature as is to be had in any branch of tort law. Perhaps recent years have seen a little headway made in dispelling the confusion and taking some of the work load off of this weary concept by separating other strands for analysis and treatment under other more appropriate headings. If that is so much of the credit belongs to Dean Green.

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Legal Cause (with R. F. Perry), 60 Yale L.J. 761 (1951)

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