In order to be liable for an accident, the defendant must have caused it both actually and proximately. Actual cause simply means that the defendant’s negligent conduct was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. For example, if the defendant is inattentive and rear-ends the plaintiff, causing injury, then the defendant’s inattention is the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
The proximate cause of an accident is that which, in a natural and continuous sequence results in the accident. In the above example, the driver’s inattention led directly to the collision. A collision was the natural consequence of the driver’s inattention. It was therefore the proximate cause of the accident. A defendant cannot be held liable for injuries that are unpredictable and do not have a reasonable link to their actions. For example, if a defendant is speeding and rear-ends the plaintiff, and the plaintiff, while standing in the roadway to exchange information following the accident, is struck by a tractor-trailer, the defendant is not liable for the injury caused by the tractor-trailer. In that case, the tractor-trailer was an intervening cause.
In Virginia, even when a plaintiff can show that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury, that defendant may escape liability by proving that the plaintiff also contributed to the cause of the accident. If the plaintiff is deemed partially to blame for the accident, they may be barred from recovery completely. In the above example, a jury might find that the plaintiff contributed to the injuries caused by the tractor trailor by standing in a busy roadway after an accident.
Virginia is one of 4 states, along with the District of Columbia, that still follow the rules of pure contributory negligence. Other parts of the country follow a rule known as comparative negligence which may result in a reduced damage award, but will not automatically bar all recovery for a plaintiff whose negligence was a contributing cause of the accident.