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Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.: Foreseeability and Personal Injury Law

October 6, 2017

In 1928, Benjamin Cardozo penned the majority opinion in one of the leading cases of American tort law.  Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. is best known for its articulation of the foreseeability doctrine, and an entertaining read.

In Palsgraf, the plaintiff, Helen Palsgraf, was on her way to Rockaway Beach with her daughters.  While standing on the train platform buying tickets, two men ran to catch a train that had already started moving.  One of the men leaped to catch the train, lost his footing and dropped a package containing fireworks.  The fireworks ignited on impact, causing a ripple effect that knocked over scales on the other end of the platform.  The scales collided with Mrs. Palsgraf and left her injured.

Mrs. Palsgraf sued the train company.  The basis for her claim was that of the two guards working the platform that assisted the men rushing to catch the train, one of them dislodged the package containing the fireworks.  The court held that the guards did not act negligently.

Cardozo observed that “[t]he conduct of the defendant’s guard, if a wrong in its relation to the holder of the package, was not a wrong in its relation to the plaintiff, standing far away. Relatively to her it was not negligence at all. Nothing in the situation gave notice that the falling package had in it the potency of peril to persons thus removed.”  In short, the guards did not owe Mrs. Palsgraf a duty of care and had no notice that the package contained fireworks.  Later in his opinion, Cardozo wrote “[o]ne who seeks redress at law does not make out a cause of action by showing without more that there has been damage to his person. If the harm was not willful, he must show that the act as to him had possibilities of danger so many and apparent as to entitle him to be protected against the doing of it though the harm was unintended.”  Cardozo seems to be suggesting that because the contents of the package were unknown, it was not foreseeable that someone on the other end of the platform would be injured.  Interestingly, the dissent in Palsgraf has been instrumental in shaping tort law and the doctrine of foreseeability.

William Andrews penned the now famous dissent in Palsgraf.  His dissent is perhaps most famous for the phrase “danger zone.”  Andrews discussed at length the legal theory of proximate cause.  Where Cardozo had suggested that there is no negligence unless someone is harmed, Andrews wrote that “[w]here there is the unreasonable act, and some right that may be affected there is negligence whether damage does or does not result.”  He opined that driving down Broadway “at a reckless speed” is negligence whether a collision results or not.  Andrews described what he called “the radius of danger.”  Andrews concluded that defendants owe a duty to plaintiffs “even if he be outside what would generally be thought the danger zone.”

This legal discussion in Palsgraf has been instrumental in shaping personal injury law.  Defendants are held liable for the direct consequences of their negligence as long as the harm is foreseeable.  Essential to that analysis is whether the defendant could have reasonably foreseen injuring the plaintiff.  Other considerations are independent intervening causes, and dependent intervening causes.

If you or a family member have suffered injury as the result of negligence, contract Bryan W. Crews, your Orlando personal injury attorney.

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