The Efficient Proximate Cause Doctrine in California: Ten Years After Garvey

Reprinted with permission from the Autumn 1999 issue of the Journal of Insurance Coverage. Copr. Aspen Law and Business.

Ten years ago, California courts applied conflicting standards when addressing the question of coverage under an all risk insurance policy in cases where the loss could be attributed to two causes, one an excluded risk and the other a covered risk. In 1989, the California Supreme Court resolved that conflict when it decided Garvey v. State  Farm Fire & Casualty Co.1 There, the court ruled that when a loss is caused by a combination of a covered risk and a specifically excluded risk, the loss is covered only if the covered risk was the "efficient proximate cause" of the loss.

In so holding, the California Supreme Court rejected a developing body of law that had evolved from its holding in State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co. v. Partridge,2 in which courts applied a "concurrent causation" analysis to first-party property insurance coverage claims. Under the concurrent cause theory, there was coverage if at least one of the identified causes was a non-excluded peril. Instead, the Garvey court reaffirmed and clarified the applicability of the efficient proximate cause analysis the Supreme Court first articulated twenty-six years earlier in Sabella v. Wisler. 3

This article analyzes the current state of the efficient proximate cause doctrine in California. As a background for this discussion, this article briefly revisits the Garvey decision and the development of the efficient proximate cause doctrine in California.

1.770 P.2d 704 (Cal. 1989).
2. 514 P.2d 123 (Cal. 1973).
3. 377 P.2d 889 (Cal. 1963). The "efficient proximate cause" doctrine is often mistakenly referred to as the "concurrent cause" doctrine. Concurrent cause is actually a misnomer because it suggests that the events, actions, or forces must occur simultaneously. The "efficient proximate cause" doctrine as developed by the courts in Garvey and Sabella, applies where the actions, events, or forces occur sequentially.

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The Efficient Proximate Cause Doctrine in California: Ten Years After Garvey

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