Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.
248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (1928)

  • Three guys were running to catch a train. One of them reached out to a conductor on the train who pulled him inside. As this happened, the man dropped his package, which happened to be filled with fireworks.
    • Some of the reports at the time said that the package contained 6 18″ bombs! Some speculated that the three guys were actually anarchists/terrorists.
  • The fireworks exploded, sending a shockwave through the train station which knocked over a large scale some 25 to 30 feet away from the explosion. The scale fell on Palsgraf, who was injured. Palsgraf sued the railroad for negligence.
    • The explosion was heard several blocks away and dozens of people in the station were knocked over by the blast.
    • Palsgraf was not actually physically hurt by the scale. She claimed that the experienced traumatized her and she had developed a stutter.
    • Btw, Palsgraf argued that the negligence was the pushing of the man with the package, but she did not argue that the scales had been negligently affixed to the wall. She might have had a stronger case if she’d used that argument.
  • The Trial Court found for Palsgraf. Long Island appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Long Island appealed again.
  • The New York Supreme Court reversed and dismissed the complaint.
    • The NY Supreme Court found that while the conductor’s conduct may have been wrong with respect to the guy holding the fireworks, it was not wrong with respect to Palsgraf.
    • Negligence is not actionable unless it involves the invasion of a legally protected interest.”
      • Essentially, there needs to be a relationship between the defendant and the harm caused to the plaintiff. Justice Cardozo argued that this case was basically a duty to care issue.
        • Since the conductor did not owe Palsgraf a duty to protect her from getting hit by a scale, the events were outside the conductor’s scope of duty to Palsgraf.
    • It was not foreseeable to the guard that the package contained fireworks and would explode if dropped.
      • The package was unmarked.
      • The Court ruled that a reasonable person would not have foreseen that a package contained explosives, therefore they are not liable for damages resulting from exploding packages.
      • The extent of liability is defined by foresight.
    • Basically, the New York Supreme Court held that the conductor’s actions were not the proximate cause of Palsgraf’s injury.
  • In a dissent, it was stated that, “duty runs to the world at large, and negligence toward one it negligence to all”
    • “The relationship is not between a man and those whom he might reasonably expect his act to injure; rather, a relationship between him and those that he does in fact injure.”
      • “Every man owes to the world at large a duty of refraining from those acts that may reasonably threaten the safety of others. The consequences are not confined to those who might probably be hurt.
      • See The Polemis Case (3 K.B. 560 (1921)).
        • In Polemis, it was held that defendants are only liable for damages that are a direct consequence of the defendant’s negligence.
    • The dissent argued that liability is limited by the proximate cause, not by defining the scope of duty or negligence.
  • Would Long Island have been liable for:
    • The cost of the dropped package?
    • Damages resulting from a dropped package that landed on someone’s foot?
    • Damages directly resulting from someone getting beaned in the head by the shooting fireworks?
    • How do you go about drawing a line? Here are some suggestions:
      • Was there a natural and continuous sequence between the negligence and harm?
      • Was the negligence a substantial cause of the harm?
      • Is there a direct connection between the negligence and the harm?
      • Were their intervening causes?
      • Is the effect of the negligence too attenuated?
      • Was the negligence likely to produce the harm?
      • Would the harm be reasonably foreseen by a prudent person?
        • This is the only test Justice Cardozo suggested.
      • Was the harm “remote” from the negligence?
  • This case is bar none the most famous case in US tort law (according to Prof. Page anyway)