What Is Cause of Action?

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Chaos would result if anyone could sue anybody over any perceived wrong at any time. The judicial system would collapse under the weight of all those cases. The American legal system is set up to prevent that. Of course, an individual can sue if he's been wronged, but he would need a legitimate cause of action – a legal basis that supports his assertion that what the other party did was indeed contrary to civil law and therefore wrong. That basis gives him the legal right to file a lawsuit.

Cause of Action Definition

A cause of action must cite some civil wrongdoing on the part of the defendant – the person being sued. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she broke a criminal law, although she might have done that, too. It effectively means that the defendant did something that’s not in the best interests of society.

Maybe an individual is driving home from work one night and an inebriated driver runs a red light and plows into her, causing her grievous injury and thousands of dollars in property damage. Yes, driving while intoxicated is a criminal offense, but it can also be alleged that the driver was negligent in drinking and then driving.

Negligence would be the cause of action for bringing a civil suit against the driver or his insurance company. Negligence is considered a tort, a wrongful act. This category also includes things like slander, invasion of privacy and assault. Contractual issues are a separate cause of action, as is fraud.

Statutes of Limitation

Grounds are often limited under cause of action definition laws to a certain period of time after they occur. The plaintiff – the person bringing a lawsuit to the court – might have a cause of action against that drunken driver, but she still might not be able to sue him if she waits 10 years to get around to it.

Elements of a Cause of Action

A cause of action must have certain elements to proceed as a lawsuit. It’s not enough to state in the complaint: “John Doe was drunk and this constitutes negligence.” The plaintiff must also establish that John Doe had a duty to remain sober, which he neglected, and that his negligence was the proximate cause of the accident.

It’s up to the plaintiff in the lawsuit to prove all elements of the claim to the court’s satisfaction.

Presenting a Claim for Damages

A claim for damages is also an element of a cause of action. A plaintiff can’t file a lawsuit without making one. It’s what she wants the court to order to make her whole again, referred to as relief. She might ask that the court order John Doe to pay for all her property damage, all her medical bills and a lump sum of $1 million to compensate for her pain and suffering.

She wouldn't have a cause of action and wouldn't be able to bring a lawsuit if there were no possible relief or remedy for what happened to her, but this is rare. Likewise, there must be a connection between the requested relief and the cause of action. She couldn't ask the court to order John to pay for her new fence because he hit her on the highway – although she could certainly use some of that $1 million to replace the fence.

The Defendant’s Rights

The plaintiff's day in court is also the defendant’s day in court. John is entitled to file a written answer to her lawsuit complaint, either admitting or denying that he was negligent. He can cite his own cause of action – this is where he might assert that the plaintiff actually ran the red light, although he would have to prove it to the court.

The defendant can also make a counterclaim, demanding that the plaintiff pay for his damages and medical expenses and give him $1 million because of her wrongdoing if she did run that red light.


  • The word action literally translates to lawsuit in legal terms. The event that gave rise to the lawsuit is the cause of action, also referred to in legal circles as grounds.

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