Causation and the Butterfly Effect; How Far Will the Law Stretch?


I had a friend ask the other day about a tragic case involving a person who was badly hurt in a car accident. The plaintiff some months later overdosed on their medication that had been prescribed for the injury. The lawyer wanted to know if they could sue for the death of the Plaintiff as related to the car accident.

var _giphy = _giphy || []; _giphy.push({id: ‘zfQnxT9fo3g64’,w: 300, h: 166});var g = document.createElement(‘script’); g.type = ‘text/javascript’; g.async = true;g.src = (‘https:’ == document.location.protocol ? ‘https://’ : ‘http://’) + ‘’;var s = document.getElementsByTagName(‘script’)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(g, s);My response was “I think there is a break in the chain of causation.” That is to say, the patient would not have had the medication without the injury, but they have a duty to monitor their medicine intake as well. Blaming the initial event when your own care could have prevented your death is unjust in my opinion. The legal phrase for when some act of negligence is the legal cause of a harm is proximate cause. I like to think of it as the dominant cause. Other things contribute but if the targeted negligence is the big reason for the harm, then that is the culprit in my book.

What does the law say on the subject? As you will see in the case below, the law says that proximate cause “is always to be determined on the facts of each case upon mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy and precedent…. The best use that can be made of the authorities on proximate cause is merely to furnish illustrations of situations which judicious men upon careful consideration[260 Ga. 570] have adjudged to be on one side of the line or the other.’ Foundations of Legal Liability, Vol. 1, p. 110 (1906).” McAuley, supra, at 9, 303 S.E.2d 258 (Weltner, J., dissenting).”

260 Ga. 569 (1990), the Georgia Supreme Court considered the issue. There a woman who was trying to become pregnant was given a hormone shot by a doctor. As it turns out she was already pregnant and the shot caused her to have to have an abortion. The jury found that the Doctor’s negligent decision not to give a pregnancy test to a woman he knew was trying to get pregnant was the cause of the eventual abortion. The Court of Appeals reversed the jury’s decision saying there was not enough evidence of a causing b. The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court saying, look a jury had some evidence before it that could lead them to a causation decision. It is not for us to reverse their decision except in plain and undisputed cases. Jury decisions are given great deference.

When I told my lawyer friend I was giving what I think is the morally correct answer and it happens to also be the answer a jury should give. There is nothing illegal about bringing the case and it will likely survive being thrown out on summary judgment. It is just not a smart case to bring and frankly, it’s the wrong thing to do.

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