Poor Ms. Palsgraf: A Look at Negligence

A trip to the beach outside New York City wound up becoming one of the foundational cases in American negligence law.

Facts

Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company involved a woman, Helen Palsgraf, who was waiting at a railroad platform, along with her two daughters, for a train that would take them to Rockaway Beach in Queens. According to another source, Ms. Palsgraf was in the midst of a troublesome divorce, and though that a day at the beach would be a welcome diversion.

As the trio waited for their train, another train bound for another location began to pull out of the station. One passenger, who was described as a possible anarchist, tried to board as the train pulled away from the platform. Two railroad employees tried to assist the man, who was described as somewhat overweight. One pullman pushed the man from the platform, while another one tried to pull him inside.

In all the chaos, no one noticed the small package that the would-be passenger had under his arm. This package turned out to be fireworks, and as the pullmen jostled the man, he dropped the package. The fireworks exploded, sending a shock wave across the platform and causing a set of large scales to topple onto poor Ms. Palsgraf. She claimed no physical injury, but rather a nervous condition akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. The trial court concluded that the railroad, which had a history of safety issues, was negligent.

Decision

The case ultimately reached the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest judicial body. Judge Benjamin Cardozo, who later sat on the Supreme Court of the United States, authored the opinion.

In a nutshell, Judge Cardozo concluded that the injury to Ms. Palsgraf was not foreseeable:

[T]he eye of vigilance perceives the risk of danger … The risk reasonably to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed, and risk imports relation; it is to another or others within the range of apprehension. Here, by concession, there was nothing in the situation to suggest to the most cautious mind that the parcel wrapped in newspaper would spread wreckage throughout the station.

Since the pullmen could not have possibly predicted that the tardy passenger would drop a bundle of fireworks that would knock over a penny scale on the other side of the platform and injure a bystander, the railroad was not liable for damages.

An alternative theory propounded by the dissenting justice, William S. Andrews, suggested that a “zone of danger” theory be applied, and that Ms. Palsgraf was within that zone. But this theory never gained very much traction in the legal community.

Application

For a plaintiff to receive compensation in a negligence case, the injury must be foreseeable. For example, it is foreseeable that a rear-end collision may force a car into oncoming traffic and cause an additional wreck.

If you or a loved one was injured due to someone else’s carelessness, contact an experienced Fayetteville personal injury attorney for a free consultation. At the Wade Law Firm, we are ready to help.

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