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What is a Cause of Action?

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  • Written By: Charity Delich
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A cause of action forms the basis for bringing a civil lawsuit. It includes all of the facts, circumstances, and legal grounds that permit a plaintiff to seek relief from a defendant. A plaintiff must have a sufficient cause of action in order to initiate a lawsuit. If a legal cause of action is not adequately presented, a judge may dismiss a plaintiff’s case at the start of the suit. In general, a cause of action is shaped first by a legal theory, such as negligence or breach of contract. The legal theory must then be supported by facts.

For example, suppose that a woman is shopping at a supermarket. Assume also that the supermarket floor is wet and slippery due to a leaky produce case and that there is no sign warning about the wet floor. If the woman slips, falls, and injures herself, she may have a negligence cause of action against the supermarket for failing to properly maintain or warn about the condition of the floor. The legal theory in this suit would be negligence, which is supported by the facts surrounding the slip and fall incident.

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Causes of action can be triggered by a number of different events, and multiple causes of action can be present in one suit. They can arise from or relate to a person or entity’s actions. For instance, suppose that a man walks up to a stranger on the street and that the man begins to punch and scream at the stranger. The stranger may have a cause of action against the man for assault as well as for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A person’s lack of action sometimes also gives rise to a cause of action. For example, a school owes a certain duty of care to its students to maintain school grounds. Assume that the school has old, rotting front steps that the students use daily to get in and out of the school building. If the school fails to repair the rotting steps and a student is subsequently injured on them, the student may have a cause of action against the school for negligence.

Causes of action can also stem from the breach of a duty or legal obligation. For instance, suppose that a supplier and a distributor have entered into a contract in which the supplier has agreed to provide a vat of widgets to the distributor by a certain date. If the supplier fails to provide the widgets by the specified date, the distributor may sue the supplier for breach of contract.

The violation of a person’s civil rights can also form the basis for a cause of action. Suppose, for example, that a boss refuses to promote a woman in a company simply because the boss does not want women in a position of power. In this case, the woman’s civil rights have been violated, and she may initiate a lawsuit against the company for gender discrimination.

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