Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad: Understanding Scope of Liability

Long Island RailroadThe scene is a loud and bustling railroad station on East Long Island almost one hundred years ago. Dozens of people are shuffling about to get to work and countless other places.

A whistle blows, an engine begins to gather steam, and the nearest train starts to crawl down the tracks away from the station. When out of nowhere, a man darts out of a throng of people and races towards the departing locomotive. Onlookers soon realize that he probably will not make it in time.

So, two guards-one on the train and one on the platform-rush to his aid. With all their might, they grab him and together try to launch him up onto the vehicle. Maybe they noticed, or maybe they did not, but under the man’s arm was a nondescript package wrapped in the morning’s newspaper.

However, as it became dislodged in the heat of the tussle none would fail to ignore it any longer because its fall onto the train tracks below makes such a tremendous explosion.

In fact, what the man was carrying was a bundle of fireworks merely 15 inches long. After the initial shock of the burst, its ripples went way down the station’s structure. It was shaken to the core, so shaken actually that it forced scales off their resting place onto a one Mrs. Helen Palsgraf on the side of the station opposite the explosion.

Naturally, Mrs. Palsgraf sued except instead of suing the young man with an appetite for danger, she sued the railroad. She claimed that its employees’ negligence injured her and that she was entitled to damages. Believe it or not, at the end of the day, she was actually obligated to pay the railroad compensation but how the story got to that point first involves digressing into one of the most famous cases in history.

Case Analysis: How the Court Interpreted a Defendant’s Duty to Plaintiff in Personal Injury Litigation

Before delving into the particular key facts, reasoning, and holdings of this case, it is first critically important to review the prima facie case that the plaintiff, Mrs. Palsgraf, needed to set out to obtain relief.

She stated a claim of negligence against the railroad employees and thus the railroad as their employers. She never stated that the railroad employees intentionally tried to hurt her. In her negligence claim, then, she had to prove duty, breach, causation, and damages.

The defendant must owe the plaintiff some duty. This can arise from statute or whether reasonable believe (a jury in the end) would deduct that a duty existed in a set of circumstances to act in a particular way.

For negligence to occur, the defendant must have breached that duty or gone against what reasonable people would have done under the circumstances. Further, that breach must have actually and reasonably caused damages to the plaintiff. The interplay of these four factors largely determined the outcome of this case.

The man who wrote the majority decision in Palsgraf, Benjamin Cardoza (see also: 248 N.Y. 339; 162 N.E. 99; 1928 N.Y. LEXIS 1269; 59 A.L.R. 1253), would not go gently into history. Cardoza was a leading jurist on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, and authored many influential opinions from that perch.

Yet, only a few years later, Cardoza would go on to the Supreme Court and play a major role in the judiciary for most of the 1930s. As written by him, the two major issues that presented themselves in this case were the following:

  • 1-How should the duty of care be defined?
  • 2-To whom is the duty of care owed?

While the plaintiffs and the dissent tried to skip ahead to other parts of negligence (such as causation and damages), Cardoza stuck to a methodical approach of the situation and stated before any other issue, a duty of care to the plaintiff must be found.

He stated that, “Proof of negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do.” In other words, it is not enough to point to an unlawful or wrongful act and cry foul. He expounded upon this later on by saying, “What the plaintiff must show is ‘a wrong’ to herself…not merely a wrong to someone else, nor conduct wrongful because unsocial, but not ‘a wrong’ to anyone.”

Basically, the court stated that because it was agreed to that this was not an intentional act, duty must be established before anything else. While it might easily be argued that the employees had a duty and were negligent to the man and his package, this does not transfer to Mrs. Palsgraf automatically because people are not vicarious beneficiaries of other’s negligence. If there was a duty of care leads to the questions of how it should be drawn and that will be discussed now.

Writing for the majority, Cardoza stated that people should be responsible for their acts-lawful or otherwise- to the extent that they could reasonably portend danger and only to that extent. He articulates this in the middle of his opinion when he says, “The orbit of the danger as disclosed to the eye of reasonable vigilance would be the orbit of the duty.”

This precisely defines what the duty of care is and all those falling within that orbit are owed it. Of course, embedded within this standard is the assumption of reasonableness, the perception of danger at the time of the act from a reasonable person’s perspective as determined by a jury.

Of course, the situation here was complicated by the fact that they employees were ostensibly doing a lawful and good act: helping a passenger board a departing train. Cardoza states that this does not transform into a tort because the good act has some removed consequence outside the bounds of foresight. (“If no hazard was apparent to the eye of ordinary vigilance, an act innocent and harmless, at least to outward seeming, with reference to her, did not take to itself the quality of a tort because it happened to be a wrong…”).

Thus, this case has largely been read to state that people owe a duty of care to others for the consequences that might reasonably be foreseen from it. It is a reasonable and causal determination. Using the language of the majority, the duty of care can be described in the following manner:

“The risk reasonably to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed, and risk imports relation; it is risk to another or to others within the range of apprehension… Without any perception that one’s actions could harm someone, there could be no duty towards that person, and therefore no negligence for which to impose liability.”

Of course, this range of reasonableness rule has exceptions. One exception includes unexpected consequences. If you do something wrongful but do not perceive the outcome you are still liable.

An example of this is if you throw an object into a crowded environment trying to hit someone and it actually hits someone else, you are still liable. Another exception includes things that are by their nature dangerous such as shooting or handling toxic materials.

Public policy and other forces impose a duty of care to even those who may remotely come in contact with these actions and Cardoza suggests that in this way the law has made people conducting these activities quasi-insurers to the surrounding public. However, for most actions, especially those that are lawful and/or unintentional, we are held to a standard of what is within a range of reasonableness at the time of acting.

The author of the dissent in Palsgraf was also a legal titan, Justice William Andrews. Justice Andrews sat on New York’s highest court for most of the 1920s and dissented from Justice Cardoza in other famous instances, including Meinhard v. Salmon.

In his dissent, Andrews agreed that people owe a duty to avoid acts that might unreasonably put others in danger. However, instead of focusing on the duty prong of negligence, he focused on causation. Rather than asking if the person harmed and complaining was within the zone of danger, Andrews asks, first, whether there was an unbroken chain of events from the triggering act to the injury and, second, whether it was not too remote in terms of time and space to render the consequence unforeseeable from the defendant’s position.

In other words, the defendant should be liable if his or her actions proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury. As a practice point, Andrews thought these issues should have been left to a jury to decide, whereas, the question of duty that Cardoza espoused was left to a judge.

Therefore, the majority opinion left open the possibility that many future defendants could short-circuit cases by proving no duty existed to a judge-an often easier and by far much less expensive task than proving no proximate causation existed to a jury.

Palsgraf: Meaning and Future Applications

Palsgraf greatly influenced the future of American common law on negligence and torts (such as car accidents or a construction site incident). It defined the boundaries of negligence by drawing the scope of duty around foreseeable harms and, thereby, shaped the contours of legal practice for the coming decades.

However, many see this battle as one that still wages. Many lawyers around the country to this day use Cardoza’s and Andrews’ opinions to support their cases, even though Andrews lost. Typically, those arguing duty use Cardoza and those arguing causation use Andrews.

Stepping out of the past, however, one can begin to see how Palsgraf could continue to impact society for many years to come. For instance, we are living in ever-increasingly urban and concentrated areas. People in the United States are flocking to cities and rubbing shoulders at greater rates than ever before.

The ability to predict the consequences of your actions is diminishing with every new skyscraper and track of public transportation. Of course, the wise and legitimate alternative is to slow down and proceed cautiously but those words of wisdom are normally much quieter than the drums of profit and capitalism.

Put plainly, Palsgraf will inject extraordinary risk and potentially costs into the modern economy, especially infrastructure and development. Accidents and crashes can have impacts well beyond what Cardoza contemplated in his opinion, but his rule still generally applies.

Another significant consideration is the effect that technology has had on society. Computers, phones, and the internet have connected the world like never before. A person in Indiana can connect with a person in Australia instantaneously. The awesomely positive implications this has equals the awesomely negative implications it could have as well.

Should we hold someone liable for things they say on Facebook because it hurts the reputation or feelings of some person or group far and away from what the speaker meant? Should we be able to sue others for causing damage or disruption to servers or other modern, technological equipment through their completely legal uses? Thus, it is completely clear that Palsgraf has stark applications and consequences now and in the future, it just is not totally apparent what they are yet!

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