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  • Writer's picturePeter Lamont, Esq.

What is a Cause of Action ?| Peter J. Lamont, Esq.

Litigation attorneys often refer to causes of action when they are discussing a complaint or a lawsuit. While the term "cause of action" is second nature to attorneys, it is not necessarily something well known by non-lawyers. In this post, we explain the meaning of a cause of action.

Causes of Action Explained

A cause of action is a legal basis for suing. It's the reason why someone believes that the law says they should win their case. To have a cause of action, somebody must have done something wrong according to the law—this person is called the "defendant." The person who was hurt and is suing—the "plaintiff"—believes that the law entitles them to some kind of relief, such as money damages. The plaintiff has the burden of proving every element of their cause of action. If even one element is not proved, then the plaintiff will lose their case.

Initiation of a Lawsuit

Lawsuits are initiated when one party, files and serves a Complaint on another party or parties. A Complaint is a legal document that sets forth the reasons why the plaintiff believes that the defendant is liable or at fault.

Our legal system has established certain legal grounds for which someone could be found to be liable. For example, if someone is hired to do work on your house and they do a poor job and cause damage, our legal system offers grounds to hold the contractor liable. These rules are put in place to prevent people from suing others for non-sensical reasons. For example, if we did not have these rules and guidelines in place Sally could sue John simply because John is bald.

A cause of action is a legal basis for suing. It's the reason why someone believes that the law says they should win their case.

Examples of Causes of Action

These grounds or the legal basis, by which someone can be held liable are called causes of action. Every cause of action in our legal system is made up of various elements that must be played by a plaintiff and ultimately proven if that plaintiff is to prevail. In law school, professors teaching tort law devote a significant amount of time to explaining the elements of various causes of action. The best way to understand the cause of action is to analyze the elements. For example, let’s look at the elements of the cause of action for negligence.

Example One: Negligence

To establish a cause of action for negligence, a plaintiff must show that the defendant (1) owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, (2) breached their duty of care by acting unreasonably; (3) that this breach of duty is the proximate cause of the plaintiff's damages, and (4) that the plaintiff sustained actual damages.

In other words, the cause of action for negligence is comprised of these four elements. If a plaintiff cannot prove each of these four elements he will not prevail on his claim.

Example Two: Breach of Contract

Another example of a cause of action is a breach of contract claim. A cause of action for breach of contract generally has five elements: (1) the existence of a valid and binding contract; (2) the plaintiff’s performance under the contract; (3) the defendant’s breach of the contract; (4) causation; and, (5) damages.

These are just two examples to help illustrate how a cause of action is made up of different elements that must be met for a plaintiff to prevail.

No Requirement to Prove Causes of Action in a Complaint

The courts do not require a plaintiff to prove each cause of action when they file a Complaint. Instead, the court requires the plaintiff to properly allege each of the elements of that particular cause of action. Whether or not the plaintiff can prove the causes of action is addressed later in the case. At the initial filing stage, the court simply looks to see that the elements of a cause of action have been properly laid out in the Complaint. If a plaintiff fails to allege all of the elements of a cause of action the court may, upon the filing of a Motion to Dismiss by the defendant, require the plaintiff to submit an Amended Complaint where in the elements are properly pled.

Key Point: All Elements Must be Met

It is interesting to note that people are often under the misconception that they may have a valid claim because some of the elements of a cause of action are met. For example, using the contractor example from above, you could hire a contractor to do work on your house, and the contractor could have made mistakes or done a bad job but then later corrected the mistakes.

Technically, you might be able to show some of the elements of negligence. For example, assume you could show that the contractor owed you a duty of care and breached the duty by providing improper work. However, since the contractor made the corrections resulting in only minimal delays and he did not charge you any additional money for the repairs, you might not be able to establish damages. As a result, you can only prove some of the elements of negligence, not all of them and thus, your claim will fail.


Causes of action form the foundation of a lawsuit. It is important that you retain an experienced litigation attorney to assist you when analyzing whether or not you can establish all of the necessary elements of a particular cause of action and to assist you with preparing the Complaint.

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As with any legal issue, it is important that you obtain competent legal counsel before making any decisions about how to respond to a subpoena or whether to challenge one - even if you believe that compliance is not required. Because each situation is different, it may be impossible for this article to address all issues raised by every situation encountered in responding to a subpoena. The information below can give you guidance regarding some common issues related to subpoenas, but you should consult with an attorney before taking any actions (or refraining from acts) based on these suggestions. Separately, this post will focus on New Jersey law. If you receive a subpoena in a state other than New Jersey you should immediately seek the advice of an attorney in your state as certain rules differ in other states.


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