• Peter Lamont, Esq.

What is a Cause of Action?



Lawyer's like to use big words, outdated Latin, and confusing phrases all the time. One such phrase is "Cause of Action." Most of you are asking, "what the heck does that mean?" Well, today, I am going to explain what a cause of action is and what it means to your lawsuit.

Cause of Action Explained

The Internet is filled with long-winded, confusing definitions for the phrase "cause of action." We are going to ignore all the complicated explanations and get right down to the nitty-gritty. Basically, a cause of action is the legal theory under which a plaintiff (the person suing) believes that the defendant violated the law or his rights. It is the theory of liability by which the plaintiff is seeking either money or other assistance from the court.

There is no set number of causes of action that a plaintiff can allege in a complaint. It is only limited by the amount of causes that actual exist. What I mean by that is, a plaintiff is not permitted to file frivolous claims or causes of action.

Example #1

Let's look at an example. Say that you entered into a contract with a beach blanket manufacturer (the seller). You agreed to purchase 100 beach blankets from the seller which you intended to use at an upcoming company beach party. You signed a contract that said for $600 the seller would provide you with 100 custom beach blankets on or before June 2nd. You had made it very clear to the seller that the beach party was scheduled for June 5th and that you absolutely needed them on the 2nd. On June 2nd the seller calls you and says that there was a manufacturing error and that the blankets will not be ready before June 5th. He also refuses to refund your money. So, you decide to sue him. What are the legal theories that you are going to allege? Well, you can allege the following causes of action: (1) breach of contract; (2) unjust enrichment; and maybe (3) negligence. Those are your causes of action - your theories of liability.

Example #2

Now, let's take the same set of facts but change a few things. Let's assume that the seller never calls you. On June 4th you call him to find out when the blankets will be delivered. He refuses to answer the phone or respond to you in any way. Under this set of facts you may be able to include and additional case of action for fraud. You would allege that the seller (1) intentionally made a false state of material fact (that he would make and deliver the blankets); (2) that he intended you to rely on the false statement; (3) that you did reasonably rely on the statement and that (4) you sustained damages. As you can see, the addition of the new fact (his refusal to respond to deliver the blankets) creates a new cause of action.

Now, what would happen if under the first scenario, (the one where the sellers tells you that there was a manufacturing error), you attempted to allege a cause of action for fraud? At best, the cause of action would likely be dismissed because you cannot establish the necessary elements of fraud and at worst, you could get sanctioned or fined by the court for filing a frivolous claim.

Summary

So, to bring things back around full circle, a cause of action is the legal theory under which a plaintiff sues of defendant. You can allege as many causes of action as the facts permit. Filing claims for causes of action that you cannot substantiate or that are made in bad faith, can get your in trouble with the court.

If you want more information about causes of action, please feel free to contact me directly at pl@pjlesq.com or via telephone at (973) 949-3770.

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NJ Podcast Host and Attorney Peter Lamont
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