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Cause of Action

CAUSE OF ACTION

The fact or combination of facts that gives a person the right to seek judicial redress or relief against another. Also, the legal theory forming the basis of a lawsuit.

The cause of action is the heart of the complaint, which is the pleading that initiates a lawsuit. Without an adequately stated cause of action the plaintiff's case can be dismissed at the outset. It is not sufficient merely to state that certain events occurred that entitle the plaintiff to relief. All the elements of each cause of action must be detailed in the complaint. The claims must be supported by the facts, the law, and a conclusion that flows from the application of the law to those facts.

The cause of action is often stated in the form of a syllogism, a form of deductive reasoning that begins with a major premise (the applicable rule of law), proceeds to a minor premise (the facts that gave rise to the claim), and ends with a conclusion. In a cause of action for battery, the rule of law is that any intentional, unpermitted act that causes a harmful or offensive touching of another is a battery. This is the major premise and is stated first. Supporting facts, constituting the minor premise, appear after the rule of law. For example, a statement of facts for a case of battery might be "The plaintiff, while walking through ABC Store on the afternoon of March 11, 1998, was tackled by the defendant, a security guard for the store, who knocked the plaintiff to the floor and held her there by kneeling on her back and holding her arms behind her, while screaming in her ear to open her shopping bag. These actions caused the plaintiff to suffer injuries to her head, chest, shoulders, neck, and back." The cause of action concludes with a statement that the defendant is responsible for the plaintiff's injuries and that the plaintiff is entitled to compensation from the defendant.

The facts or circumstances that entitle a person to seek judicial relief may create more than one cause of action. For example, in the preceding example, the plaintiff might assert claims for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of civil rights. She might also bring claims for negligent hiring (if the guard had a history of violent behavior which the store failed to discover) or negligent supervision. (When damages are caused by an employee it is common to sue both the employee and the employer.) All these causes of action arise from the same set of facts and circumstances but are supported by different rules of law and constitute separate claims for relief.

A cause of action can arise from an act, a failure to perform a legal obligation, a breach of duty, or a violation or invasion of a right. The importance of the act, failure, breach, or violation lies in its legal effect or characterization and in how the facts and circumstances, considered as a whole, relate to applicable law. A set of facts may have no legal effect in one situation, whereas the same or similar facts may have significant legal implications in another situation. For example, tackling a shoplifting suspect who is brandishing a gun is a legitimate action by a security guard and probably would not support a claim for relief if the suspect were injured in the fracas. On the other hand, tackling a shopper who merely acts in a suspicious manner while carrying a shopping bag is a questionable exercise of a guard's duty and may well give rise to justiciable causes of action.

further readings

McCord, James W.H. "Drafting the Complaint: Defending and Testing the Lawsuit." Practicing Law Institute 447.

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