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Tracing the Cause & Origin

DonanEngineering Articles, Forensic Engineering, Principal Consultant

Why these two terms must be explicitly addressed in forensic investigation

Most forensic investigation projects include a scope to determine the cause of some damage or condition.  Project scopes often request determining the cause and origin of the damage.  Since insurance policies contain descriptions of covered and non-covered situations, clearly specifying causes and origins is crucial for clients’ coverage decisions.  This article discusses the differences between and significance of these two important terms.

Two types of causes are important:  immediate cause and proximate cause.  (In engineering, the proximate cause if often referred to as the root cause.)  Both of these types of causes have legal definitions and ramifications. An immediate cause is defined as “the final act in a series of provocations leading to a particular result or event, directly producing such result without the intervention of any further provocation”[1] or “the cause of an event or an outcome that actually created the event.”[2]  In contrast, the proximate cause is “An act from which an injury [or property damage] results as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the injury [or property damage] would not have occurred.”

A common legal example is that of an intoxicated individual driving, crashing their car,  and being killed.  The immediate cause of death was the crash.  However, the proximate cause was the individual’s state of intoxication.  Were it not for the intoxication, the death would not have occurred.

Countless examples are available from property claims.  One project scope that comes to mind involved determining the cause of spalling brick on the side of a house.  The spalled brick was below a hole in the top of the downspout.  Roof runoff exited the hole and wet the brick, rather than flowing to the ground inside the downspout.  The immediate cause of the spalled brick was freeze/thaw deterioration of the brick.  The proximate cause of the spalled brick could be the hole in the downspout which allowed water to improperly wet the brick.

The immediate cause of the spalled brick was freeze/thaw deterioration of the brick.  The proximate cause of the spalled brick could be the hole in the downspout which allowed water to improperly wet the brick.

But, what is the cause of the hole in the downspout?  Corrosion from lack of maintenance may not be covered by the insurance policy while a puncture from a falling tree limb may be covered.  So the hole becomes just an act in the series.  Then the proximate cause of the spalled brick would either be corrosion from lack of maintenance or puncture from a tree limb.

Specifying both the immediate cause and the proximate cause will helps clients determine coverage.  Illuminating the other steps in the cause sequence is helpful as well when the steps are logically arranged, and explained clearly and concisely.

Some projects ask for the origin, in addition to the cause.  In many cases, the origin also helps determine coverage.   Water is a common origin issue in property losses.  A common example is water stains on a ceiling.  The origin of the water could be roof leaks, plumbing leaks, leaking shower enclosures or condensation.  Each of these water sources likely has policy constraints and coverage issues.  In the aforementioned project where we were asked to determine the cause of spalling brick, the origin of the damaging water is roof run-off.

A strong, expert forensic report will address immediate cause, proximate cause and, when requested, origin.  The causation sequence is another important inclusion (as necessary) because it provides a clear picture of what caused the damage and how.  The best reports will lay these out clearly and concisely so insurance and law professionals, and insureds, are not required to interpret the forensic expert’s conclusions.

 

[1] Thefreedictionary.com

[2] Thelawdictionary.org

[3] Thefreedictionary.com