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Usually describes the reason something happens. The concept of cause has been used in many areas of law.

In tort law, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant caused the alleged tort. Factual (or actual) cause and proximate cause are the two elements of causation in tort law.

  • Factual cause is often established using the but-for-test. This test evaluates whether or not the tort would have occurred without the actions or omissions of the defendant. If yes, then the defendant’s actions are not the factual cause of the tort.
  • Proximate causation refers to a cause that is legally sufficient to find the defendant liable.  For example, giving birth to a defendant will not be legally sufficient to find the mother liable because the birth was not the proximate cause of the tort.

Cause is also used in criminal law. For example, under the doctrine of probable cause, the police must have a reasonable basis that a crime may have been committed to arrest someone.

[Last updated in May of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]