“Conditio Sine Qua Non” Or The Difference Between “Fault” And “Causality”

“It is not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop at the end.”

[Douglas Adams]

Conditio sine qua non” roughly translates to “Condition without which the outcome would be different”. It’s the fundamental instrument in law to distinguish between the factual responsibility of a person and his legal responsibility.


  • Giving birth to a murderer makes you factually responsible for the murders he committed, because if you hadn’t given him life he would not have been able to take the life of another human being.= Causality
  • However giving life to a murderer does not make you legally responsible for his actions in the same way you would be if you had dropped a loaded gun into his hands, turned him to face the victim and told him to pull the trigger. = Fault

To distinguish between these two parts in a chain of cause and effect is essential, not just in front of a judge and jury in a courtroom, but especially in life.

The example I used to illustrate the difference is easy. Everybody regardless of their academic training would immediately agree the mother of a murderer can not be held responsible for the deeds of her child merely on account of her giving birth to him. Tragically, in life, the situations we are faced with are not always that clear and the distinction is not always that easy.

My mother died from drowning, suffocating. The water filled her lungs preventing the oxygen to enter. Failure of oxygen to pass through her blood caused her heart to stop beating. When your heart stops beating you die. It’s very simple. Cause and effect.

Now the reason my mother drowned was because she hit her head whilst taking a bath and became unconscious causing her head to sink below the water mark. Again very logical.

The reason for her to hit her head was that she had an epileptic seizure. No questions or hesitations here either.

All of the above are facts.

Another fact is, that my mother should have taken the subscribed medication to avoid seizures. Yet she didn’t. Also she had been known to have seizures mostly when she was in contact with water and she knew that. Furthermore the autopsy report stated that when I found my mother in the bathtub, dead, at the age of 2 1/2 and the paramedics were alerted she had already been dead for several hours.

This last bit is a rather new piece of information I acquired only recently, since the subject of my mother is one not lightly breached in our household and especially with my father. It’s not that he refuses to talk about her, it is simply that he doesn’t volunteer any information on his own and freezes out the conversation until it is changed. My father, too, is a lawyer. We are both trained in the art of answering without divulging information. The difference is he is more experienced and excellent in his profession. I am unfairly matched.

All of this aside, just looking at the facts, makes it so hard to distinguish between “fault” and “causality“. So why try? Maybe because I feel safe labeling situations. I am highly organized (some people have called me “monkish”) and I like defining and sorting emotions and storing them away in little boxes to open separately. Looking at certain things with your head instead of with your heart is a strong measure of protection. It avoids having to deal with an avalanche of emotions. It avoids relenting control to an unknown.

So I decipher my mother’s fatal day, her 30th birthday, logically and analytically, as I have been trained to do. That’s what I have been doing all my life. It’s easy for me to do that.

It’s easy for me to ask: “Why was my mother in a bathtub unsupervised for several hours when it was common knowledge that she was prone to seizures in the proximity of water?” ,when I know that the answer is: “Because she would allow no one to interfere with her decisions. Because she was headstrong to a fault. Because she hated being reminded of her condition.” Causality, not fault. You see, I have just exonerated everybody still living from the (main) responsibility.

This relieves of having to confront anger and emotions towards my father to the sort of “Why didn’t you take better care of your wife, my mother? Why didn’t you check on her earlier? Why didn’t you force her to have someone present when she showered or bathed? Why couldn’t you stop this from happening?” Fault not causality.

Also, asking why my mother chose not to take her medication vital to her survival without consulting a neurologist is easy because there too I know the answer. She did it because at that point in time the medication prescribed to her drugged her to a point where she was not able to focus on an active toddler. She did it to be able to be a mother for me every moment of the day. Again causality not fault.

This answer allows me to stray from questions like “Why didn’t you find a different solution? Why wouldn’t you consult your doctor first? Why didn’t you take better care of yourself so I could have a mother for more than the first 2 1/2 years of my life? Why didn’t you do everything you could to prevent abandoning me?” Fault not causality.

This approach has worked for me for the last 20 something years to a great extent. It has kept me functioning. It has kept me focused. It has enabled me to put my emotions in labeled boxes to store away in the darker corners on my mind.

Unfortunately, this only works so far and I have come to end of my rope. I realize now, that I have to ask question that won’t heed answers easily boxed away.

I won’t be able to distinguish between “fault” and “causality” that easily anymore. It is time for me to stop calming the logical adult in me with pre-labeled answers and start comforting the 2 1/2-year-old in me who does not understand logical analysis.

I feel it’s time to come to another step in this approach: to the raw emotional one. It’s time to start acknowledging the lost little girl inside me who desperately misses her mother. Who is angry at everybody for losing her. Who feels deprived of the experience of unconditional motherly love. Who is sad and lonely and confused.

I am not entirely sure how well this approach will work for me. I know the greatest challenge will be to not fall back onto my safety blanket of logic and analysis but actually allow the full range of emotions. This thought to me isn’t scary, it’s terrifying.

The one thing I have to remind myself that it’s going to be okay, is that there isn’t just the difference between “fault” and “causality”, but also between “owning a fault” and “being legally responsible”.

Maybe my father is responsible for what happened to some extent (my mother’s death and the impact it had on my further life)? Maybe he did make mistakes? Maybe he could have and should have done better? Maybe my mother was irresponsible? Maybe she could have prevented all of this? Maybe having my mother there would have made my life easier?

Even if the answer to all of this is “Yes”, that does not mean that they have committed a crime against me. I don’t have to ask logical questions to protect them from an unfavourable judgement from the little girl inside of me. They might be responsible, but they are not at fault.

Maybe they just made mistakes. Mistakes that lead to tragic accidents. The greatest of which being my mother’s untimely end. We are all human and accidents happen.

But it still sucks!