Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R.

Helen Palsgraf was injured when a large scale on a rail road platform of the Long Island Rail Road Company fell onto her following an explosion.

On the day in question a passenger of the Long Island Rail Road was seen fumbling his way onto a passenger car with a large newspaper wrapped package under his arm.  Two employees of the Rail Road  company perceiving the passenger's difficulties tried to assist; one rail agent pushed the passenger from the platform, one pulled the passenger unto the car.  The efforts of the Long Island Rail Road employees dislodged the package which unbeknown to them contained fireworks that exploded upon hitting the tracks beneath the passenger car.  The explosion caused the scales to fall or caused passengers on the platform to jostle the scales with the same result.  Mrs. Palsgraf was injured.

Mrs. Palsgraf filed suit to obtain compensation for her injuries which she won following a jury trial.

New York's highest court the Court of Appeals (1928) reversed and dismissed Mrs. Palsgraf's case.  The opinion of Justice Benjamin Cardozo in the case stands as the cornerstone of American tort law.  Justice Cardozo deals with the definition of the "duty of care" which he defined by "foeseeability."  In otherwords, the duty of care is defined by the risk to be perceived, thus the employees of the Long Island Rail Road could not reasonably foresee that their efforts to help a struggling passenger board a departing train would jostle fireworks onto a track causing injuries to Mrs. Palsgraf standing at the other end of the platform near a scale.

Let me quote Cardozo:   "the risk reasonably perceived defines the duty to be obeyed."

This definition means that not all injuries evens those that can be traced to direct or proximate cause, or wrong --are remedial under tort law.   

Trivia alert, the American novelist Willliam Gaddis won the National Book Award and the American Book Award for his fourth novel,  A Frolic of his Own  which he said was inspired by reading Palsgraf.


  1. this makes a lot of sense, but I'm wondering how it affects situations where, although the injury wasn't foreseeable from the outset, it became apparent a bit later and was ignored (eg drug side-effects and so on.) I suppose if one of the firecrackers had fallen out as they were helping this crazy person (who needs must carry firecrackers on public transportation), but the helpers just said, "excuse me, you dropped something," and gave him or her back the package, which exploded at some later time, etc etc.
    You know, because that whole question of "foreknowledge" is kind of tricky. Unless you're God.

  2. In writing about Palsgraf it is my intention to lay down a marker for continuing to explore personal injury law, personal responsbility (mine) and so forth.

    As to your scenario, you paint a factual scenario where there is no foreseeability, then an actor walks onto the stage directly endangers customers in close proximity of the explosives.

    It's funny, that you remarked on this post--I was thinking about it in the context of who I am relative to the malpractice case which believe it or not I'm still awaiting a verdict (which is due soon.) If Pedro is Mrs. Palsgraf, where was I on the platform?

  3. Having read your description of this malpractice suit over again, I still can't see how anyone can blame you for this, since you weren't the guy's bankruptcy lawyer, etc. But then I have always found the intricacies of the law to be too weirdly detailed for my tiny, big-picture brain. I always return to Kafka's "Before the Law," you know--when the guy who's been waiting to be admitted to the Law for his whole life is dying and he asks how come no one was ever admitted, and the guy guarding the gate says that "this door was only for you," and then closes it in his face.
    Yep, that's how it all seems to me. At once way too general and way too specific. Good luck with this nightmare--you do not deserve to be screwed, but when has that ever stopped fate, the Law, the tenure committee, the government---and so on, from doing the screwing?

    I hope this time turns out to be one of those cool exceptions.

    Oh, thanks for the librarian typo link. I love that--especially since I'm a crummy typist and a hater of typos. A tragic combination.

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