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Understanding Legal Terms: What is a “Cause of Action?”

Recently, our very own Matthew Finley of Hampton Injury Law PLC wrote an article for Docket Call, the official newsletter of the Young Lawyers Section of the Virginia State Bar, about the meaning of the term “cause of action.” In his article, Mr. Finley delves into this term’s history and true nature, as well as its significance.

The term “cause of action” is commonly used within legal circles, but its meaning isn’t straightforward. While many attorneys may not like to admit it, it’s not uncommon to misunderstand the term’s true definition. So, what is it, then? In order to know what a cause of action is, and its significance, we must have a solid understanding of how this term was defined in the past.

Regarding its historical definition, Mr. Finley cites John Norton Pomeroy, a 19th-century attorney who relates a cause of action to his primary rights theory. According to this theory, a cause of action must contain the following elements:

  • The plaintiff’s primary right, which corresponds with the defendant’s primary duty
  • Wrongdoing by the defendant that breached the primary duty
  • A remedial duty that rests on the defendant and favors the plaintiff

Pomeroy’s definition is notably similar to the definition of negligence, which is another term that has a special meaning. While there are some cases in which a cause of action is distinct—such as in a murder case, since we have a duty not to kill others—negligence is often more malleable. Using negligence as a template, it’s possible to identify multiple causes of action at once, specifically if you’re arguing a duty and right that the courts haven’t addressed.

As we continue to build our understanding of a cause of action, we may also draw on modern definitions. According to The People’s Law Dictionary, a cause of action is the legal foundation of a lawsuit based on supposed facts which, if proven to be true, make up all of the “elements” required by statute. Using this definition, we can understand a lawsuit as a rational action taken when there’s sufficient evidence for a certain claim. The four distinct elements in a cause of action include:

  • Breach of Contract: Legal obligations specified in a binding contract are not fulfilled by a specific party.
  • Tort, or Civil Wrong: Any wrongdoing done by an individual, whether intentional or not.
  • Libel: A false statement, whether written or spoken, that harms an individual’s reputation.
  • All Cases: In order to be a cause of action, there must be a connection between damages and the defendant’s actions.

Essentially, a cause of action functions as the initial motivation to pursue compensation. It’s the logical progression from an accusation to a factually supported claim, which is why any competent attorney must keep the definition in mind while building a compelling argument. Ultimately, we can understand a cause of action to be any facts that are sufficient in supporting a lawsuit. Using this simple definition, we know to center our argument around a central, defined point.

Learn more about the definition of a cause of action by reading Mr. Finley’s article on Docket Call’s website. Or, if you require legal guidance, contact our skilled attorneys at Hampton Injury Law PLC.

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