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Substantial Factor Test (2024): Determination Liability in Legal Cases

In certain jurisdictions, courts use the “substantial factor” test, which states that so long as a defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in the crime, then that defendant is culpable and can be found guilty.
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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

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What is Causation in Law?

In legal terms, causation refers to the relationship of cause and effect between an event or action and its result. It is the act or process that produces an effect. In a personal injury lawsuit, for example, causation must be established to prove guilt, meaning that it's not enough to simply show that the defendant was negligent.

What is Proximate Cause?

Proximate cause, or legal cause, is an underlying cause of an accident. For example, if a truck driver swerves and hits a car, the driver is the actual cause of the accident. However, if the driver swerved in order to avoid a bicyclist on the road, the bicyclist's behavior may be proven to be the proximate cause of the accident.

What is the Concurrent Liability Rule?

Concurrent liability is when 2 or more parties are independently liable for the same incident. In terms of health and safety, concurrent liability means that an individual performing a business or undertaking which can affect the safety of a particular activity can be exposed to liability if he or she does not take all reasonable steps to minimize those risks.

What is the But-For Test?

The "but-for test" is commonly used in both tort law and criminal law to determine causation. The test asks, "But for the existence of X, would Y have occurred?" In criminal law, if the answer is yes - the result would have occurred at the time of the event - then the defendant is not liable for the crime in question.

In tort law, but-for causation is a prerequisite to liability in combination with proximate cause. In the absence of either of these, a party cannot be held liable.

Substantial Factor Test Example

A classic example of the substantial factor test is a case where a defendant causes 1 fire, and the weather or another defendant causes another fire, and the plaintiff loses his house in 1 giant fire when the 2 fires converge.

The plaintiff in this case has a “but-for” causation issue. Even if the defendant didn’t start a fire, the plaintiff’s house could have still been burned down by the other fire. How can we be sure that the defendant is responsible for destroying the plaintiff's house?

In these cases, the substantial factor test can be applied to determine whether the defendant’s fire was a “substantial” factor in damaging the plaintiff’s house.

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