Foreseeability is a key concept in personal injury law. Specifically, foreseeability is a critical element of causation. In this article, we'll explain how foreseeability works and why it's so critical to the success or failure of most personal injury cases.
Causation and Foreseeability
In order to win a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff (the person who was injured) must prove that the defendant (the person or company being used) was negligent, and that that negligence more likely than not caused (or worsened) the plaintiff’s injuries. Put another way, a defendant is not liable to a plaintiff, even if the defendant was negligent, if that negligence did not play a role in the plaintiff’s injury.
This is where foreseeability comes in. In order to prove causation (i.e., that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury), the plaintiff must prove that the harm that he or she suffered was -- or should have been -- reasonably foreseeable to a person in the defendant's position at the time. (Learn more about The "Reasonable Person" in a Personal Injury Case.)
So, foreseeability has to do with the consequences of a person’s actions or failure to act. If something is foreseeable, it is a probable and predictable consequence of the defendant’s negligent actions or inactions.
The plaintiff does not have to prove that the defendant foresaw, or should have foreseen, the exact manner in which the plaintiff’s injury occurred. But the plaintiff does have to prove that his/her injury was a natural and probable consequence of the defendant’s negligence.
Examples of Foreseeability in a Personal Injury Case
These are some difficult concepts, so let’s take a look at some examples. The easiest example is a rear-end car accident. If someone smashes into another car from behind because he or she was texting and didn’t look up, that driver was negligent, and it’s pretty obvious to anyone that texting while driving might cause a car accident. And more specifically, it’s pretty obvious that, if you are texting while driving, you might not look up in time to see a car stopped in front of you. So, it is foreseeable to a driver that by texting while driving, he or she could rear-end another car and injure another driver or passenger.
Now let’s look at some trickier examples. What if a group of elementary school students starts throwing rocks they found on the school playground, and a student gets hurt? Possibly the school might have a duty to keep its playground reasonably clear of rocks and other potential projectiles, and possibly the injured child’s parents could prove that the school was negligent for failing to clean up the playground in a reasonable and timely fashion.
But is there causation? Was the school’s negligence in not cleaning up the playground a cause of the child’s accident? Was it foreseeable that elementary school children would throw rocks at each other? That would be a question for the jury to decide in a personal injury lawsuit, but the answer is very likely yes. Young children pick up things off of the ground and throw them, sometimes at each other. So it may very well be foreseeable that leaving rocks around on an elementary school playground might lead to a child being injured by a thrown rock.
Let’s look at one more example. What if a driver goes off the road and hits a utility pole that was located 50 feet off of the shoulder, and gets injured? The driver sues the electric company, claiming that it was negligent in placing the pole where it did, because a car could run into it. Certainly, the electric company has a duty to place its poles in a non-negligent manner. But was it foreseeable that a car might run into a pole 50 feet off of the road? Probably not. 50 feet is a considerable distance. Many cities have neighborhoods where houses and other buildings are less than 50 feet from the road. In this situation, it is probably not reasonably foreseeable to the electric company that a car might run into one of its poles placed 50 feet from the road.
Learn more: Why Does Foreseeability Matter in a Personal Injury Case?