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Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company
Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company, 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99, decided by the New York Court of Appeals in 1928, established the principle in tort law that one who is negligent is liable only for the harm or the injury that is foreseeable and not for every injury that follows from his or her negligence.
The unique facts of the case created a need for a new application of the generally accepted theory that negligence is the absence of care, according to the circumstances. Mrs. Palsgraf was standing on a railroad platform when she was injured by falling scales. The scales toppled as the result of a shock of an explosion caused by an accident that occurred at the other end of the platform, "many feet away" from Palsgraf.
The accident involved a passenger with a package who was running to catch a departing train. As the passenger jumped to board the train, two railroad employees, one on the train and the other on the platform, reached for and pushed (respectively) him so he would not fall off it. The employees' help caused the passenger to drop the package. The package wrapped in newspaper contained fireworks that exploded upon hitting the tracks. The resulting explosion caused the scales to fall, striking Palsgraf. She sued the railroad for the conduct of its employees that led the passenger to drop his package of fireworks.
Both the trial court and the intermediate appellate court awarded judgment to the plaintiff, Palsgraf. The Court of Appeals decision, written by Benjamin Cardozo, reversed the judgment. Cardozo stated that negligence is wrongful "because the 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." Given this principle, Cardozo reasoned that "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."
The dissenting opinion offered that "Every one owes to the world at large the duty of refraining from those acts that may unreasonably threaten the safety of others … Unreasonable risk being taken, its consequences are not confined to those who might probably be hurt." It viewed the concept of proximate cause as "practical politics," not based on logic. Although it must be "… something without which the event would not happen," proximate cause means "that, because of convenience, of public policy, of a rough sense of justice, the law arbitrarily declines to trace a series of events beyond a certain point." The foreseeable or natural results of a negligent act affect a determination of whether the act is a proximate cause of the injuries. The dissenters, therefore, reasoned "given such an explosion as here, it needed no great foresight to predict that the natural result would be to injure one on the platform at no greater distance from its scene than was the plaintiff."
Manz, William H. 2003. "Palsgraf: Cardozo's Urban Legend?" Dickinson Law Review 107 (spring).
Weinrib, Ernest J. 2001. "The Passing of Palsgraf." Vanderbilt Law Review 54 (April).