Causation is basic to criminal liability. The law provides
that a person must be found criminally liable for the crime with which
they are charged in order for the law to impose a penalty for committing
the crime. Theoretically, criminal liability must attach for a guilty
verdict, however, in reality, it is common for juries to find innocent
people guilty of crimes.
Actual Causation & Proximate Causation
In order for a defendant to be found criminally liable for
a homicide, it must be shown that the defendant was the actual and proximate
cause of the resulting homicide.
Actual Causation or Cause in fact
Actual cause is called the cause in fact. Actual cause examines
the link between the defendant's actions and the resulting homicide, and
asks the question, "who or what actually caused the result"?
If the charges stem from the defendant's failure to act (omission), then
the first question is whether the defendant had a duty to act. If the
defendant did not have a legal duty to act, then his failure to act is
not a crime; if he had a duty to act, then his failure to act is a crime.
Courts often apply one of two tests: the but-for test or the substantial
The "But-For" Test
In a "but-for" test, the question is asked whether
the resulting homicide would have resulted "but-for" the act
or actions of the defendant. If the resulting homicide would not have
occurred"but-for" the defendant's act or actions, then the defendant
is the actual cause of the resulting homicide; however, if the resulting
homicide would have occurred regardless of the defendant's act or actions,
then the defendant is not the cause in fact of the resulting homicide.
The Substantial Factor Test
When multiple causes, people, or events are responsible
for the resulting homicide, then the question posed is whether the defendant's
own act or actions were a substantial factor in causing the resulting
homicide. Even if the defendant's acts were not the direct or the only
cause of the resulting homicide, under the substantial factor test, the
defendant may be found guilty of criminal homicide if it can be proven
that those acts were a substantial factor in the resulting homicide.
If an intervening act occurs - some event that occurs between
the defendant's act and the resulting homicide - and that act was the
cause in fact of the resulting homicide, then the defendant's act did
not cause the resulting homicide and criminal liability does not attach
(See homicide of terminally
ill, homicide of
dead victim), however, if the other act combines with the defendant's
act to cause the homicide, then the defendant's act is an intervening
cause and may be a dependent or independent intervening cause constituting
criminal liability. (See dependent and independent intervening cause).
Generally speaking, in terms of homicide and criminal liability,
under common law principles, proximate cause is the legal cause of a resulting
homicide. More widely known for its application to tort law, proximate
cause is a critical principle in criminal law application because it can
serve as the theory upon which a finding of guilty rests, despite the
fact that the evidence would otherwise support a not guilty verdict. Proximate
cause covers a vast area of the law; here, we will focus on two primary
areas: direct cause and indirect cause.
If the defendant's actions cause the resulting homicide,
then the defendant is said to be the direct and proximate cause of the
homicide. That would be so even if the defendant had a particular medical
condition, such as hemophilia, and a blow that would not normally result
in death causes the death of the victim. Regardless of the medical condition,
the defendant would then be the direct cause of the resulting homicide.
Indirect causation issues regarding criminal liability of
a homicide are very complex legal issues that require the expertise of
a highly experienced criminal defense lawyer. These issues involve the
displacement of legal liability onto a direct or indirect intervening
cause or superseding dependent or independent cause.
Dependent and Independent Intervening Cause
A dependent intervening cause is some event or force that
results from the defendant's actions.
An independent intervening cause is some event or force
that would have occurred regardless of the defendant's actions. To relieve
the defendant of criminal liability, the independent intervening cause
must supersede the decedent's actions. If the superseding event is an
abnormal response to the defendant's actions, then the event is said to
be a dependent supervening cause and the proximate cause. In other words,
if an event occurs only because of the defendant's actions, and that event
is the cause of the homicide, then the defendant is criminally liable
because the superseding event would not have occurred but-for the actions
of the defendant.
However, if the superseding event occurred before the defendant's
act, and that event was independent of the defendant's act, then the event
is an independent supervening cause of the resulting homicide and criminally
liability does not attach.
Defendant & Third Party
When a defendant and a third party act together to bring
about a homicide, and the resulting homicide would not have occurred but
for the actions of both parties, then both parties can be charged with
the completed crime, so long as the defendant's actions were an actual
cause of the crime. And if those actions were an actual cause, then they
would also be a proximate cause. They would both be vicariously liable.
Typical Questions Relating To Proximate Cause Issues
When a major case is covered by television stations, it
is not uncommon for Attorney Chris Van Wagner to be asked to appear as
a guest commentator on a network such as Good Morning America, Court TV,
or even the local TV 27 to answer questions. Some of those types of questions
appear above, below, and on the following links.
One Year And One Day Rule
Under traditional common law principles, courts would rule
that the defendant's actions were not the proximate cause of the homicide
if the victim died after one year and one day from the date of the crime.
Today, most jurisdictions, including Wisconsin, have abolished
this rule. In the minority of jurisdictions where this rule still exists,
it has been extended.
Omission To Act
An omission to act is failing to act to prevent harm to
another where there is a duty to act. A duty to act exists where there
is a special relationship (such as a parent and child), a contract, or
by statute. As well, a duty to act can be created where none previously
existed, such as when the defendant began a life saving act and then withdrew
without a sufficient reason or prevented another from preventing harm
(or death) to the victim.
Third Party Causation Issues
Third-party causation issues are vicarious liability issues,
rather than causation issues, even though they deal with an element of
causation. Vicarious liability is covered under the titles applicable
to their legal responsibility: accomplice liability, coconspirator liability,
felony murder rule, solicitation.