Landmark Cases: Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 248 NY 339 (NY 1928)

Palsgraf is a landmark Torts case,  decided in 1928 New York Court of Appeals, the highest level court in the State. The opinion was written by the well known Justice Cardozo, and details the concept of proximate cause.

The facts of the case are somewhat hard to follow, so bear with me.

A man was running to catch a train that was leaving the station. Two guards, one on the platform and one on the train itself, went to help the man. The one on the platform pushed him up, while the one in the train pulled him in. As he was being pulled in, the package he was carrying, which was wrapped in newspaper, fell to the tracks and exploded. It turns out the package contained fireworks.

The explosion, or some argue the hysteria that ensued, knocked over a scale at the other end of the platform, which fell on and injured Ms. Palsgraf. She sued the railroad, claiming the injury was due to the negligence of the employees, and won at trial and at the intermediate court level.

The New York Court of Appeals ultimately reversed the lower judgments, and found for the railroad. The court found that there was nothing about the man that would rise suspicions regarding his package, or the damage that it might cause. Cardozo wrote, "there was nothing in the situation to suggest to the most cautious mind that the parcel wrapped in newspaper would spread wreckage through the station. If the guard had thrown it down knowingly and willfully, he would not have threatened the plaintiff's safety, so far as appearances could warn him." The court also went over a definition of negligence as "the absence of care, according to the circumstances." Without a duty of care (to Ms. Palsgraf), there can be no negligence.

Additionally, the court stated that the railroad's potential negligence toward the man boarding the train was irrelevant to Ms. Palsgraf, because a person can only sue for a wrongful negligent act that violates their own rights. Palsgraf could not sue the guard for pushing the other passenger because that act did not violate a duty to her, as is required for liability under a negligence theory. "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."

This latter piece is referred to as the foreseeability test. In this case, it was perhaps foreseeable that in pulling the passenger up onto the train, he could have fallen and injured himself, but it was not foreseeable that he would be carrying a package, which was actually explosive, that would set into play the scale scenario.

And there, you have one of the most integral cases of Tort Law, taught in first year law classes throughout the country.