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Proximate cause, forseeability and Istanbul ferries

| 6/22/2009 12:00:00 AM | Gary S. Lachman

Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad is unquestionably the most famous case in American tort (which includes personal injury) law, at least as far as lawyers and law students are concerned. It deals with the related issues of proximate cause, the extent to which a person is liable for their negligence, and foreseeability, the significance of whether a person can foresee the consequences of their actions.

Facts of the Case

Helen Palsgraf was standing on a Long Island Rail Road platform in New York City on Aug. 24, 1924, waiting for a train to take her and her two daughters to the beach. While she was waiting for her train, another train arrived, and two passengers came running across the platform to catch it. One of the passengers was carrying a package under his arm. The train began leaving the platform, and two LIRR employees (one on the train, one on the ground) attempted to help the passengers get on board while the train was moving. As they pulled the passengers onto the train, the package fell to the platform.

The railroad workers didn’t know that the package contained fireworks. When the package hit the ground, it exploded. Palsgraf was at the other end of the platform and was not hurt by the explosion itself. Rather, the explosion knocked over a large scale that fell on her and struck her on the arm, hip, and thigh. She was able to walk with great difficulty, but was unable to continue her job as a housekeeper, and began suffering from shock-related symptoms a few days later, including stuttering.

The trial and the appeal

The trial was held in the New York Supreme Court, which will be familiar to any "Law & Order" fan as the usual trial court in New York. Palsgraf spent $142.45 for a lawyer to prepare the case against the Long Island Railroad. The railroad spent a total of $16 on its defense. It presented no witnesses and confined its activity at trial to cross-examining Palsgraf's witnesses. The LIRR's hope was that the judge would hear the evidence and then dismiss the case entirely.

However, the judge put the question to a jury, and the jury awarded Palsgraf $6,000 in damages (then a considerable sum) on May 26, 1927. LIRR appealed the case to the Appellate Division. It argued that its employees had not been negligent in the events that led up to Palsgraf's injury. They did not know what was inside the package, and therefore had no reason to be particularly careful about it falling to the ground.

The three-judge panel hearing the case on appeal upheld the jury's decision by a 2-1 vote. LIRR then took the case to New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals decision

On May 19, 1928, the Court of Appeals decided to overturn the Appellate Division's ruling by a 4-3 vote. At the time, judges took turns writing opinions: the judge writing the opinion on Palsgraf was Benjamin Cardozo, one of the most famous in American history. Cardozo wrote, "Negligence is not actionable unless it involves the invasion of a legally protected interest, the violation of a right." Quoting the famous English tort scholar Sir Frederick Pollock, he wrote, "Negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do."

"What the plaintiff must show is "a wrong" to herself, i. e., a violation of her own right, and not merely a wrong to someone else...” Cardozo said. “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."

This "Cardozo standard" held that a person had to be within a foreseeable zone of danger in order to have a cause of action for negligence. Cardozo reasoned that a person could not be given a duty to watch out for people who were not at a foreseeable risk of injury. "One who seeks redress at law does not make out a cause of action by showing without more that there has been damage to his person. If the harm was not willful, he must show that the act as to him had possibilities of danger so many and apparent as to entitle him to be protected against the doing of it though the harm was unintended."

The other three judges, led by William S. Andrews, disagreed with this standard. "This," wrote Andrews, "I think too narrow a conception. Where there is the unreasonable act, and some right that may be affected there is negligence whether damage does or does not result. That is immaterial.” The "Andrews standard" is best summed up by Andrews' statement that "everyone owes to the world at large the duty of refraining from those acts that may unreasonably threaten the safety of others."

He did not argue, however, that duty had to be infinite; rather, he argued that duty had to be traced as far as possible before it became lost amid intervening factors. "The court must ask itself whether there was a natural and continuous sequence between cause and effect. Was the one a substantial factor in producing the other? Was there a direct connection between them, without too many intervening causes? ….could the result be foreseen?"

Applying this standard to Palsgraf's case, Andrews concluded: "I cannot say as a matter of law that the plaintiff's injuries were not the proximate result of the negligence." He reasoned that only the explosion could have caused the scales to tip over onto Palsgraf, that Palsgraf would never have been injured save for the explosion and that the explosion would not have occurred if not for the actions of the railroad's employees.

Controversially, Cardozo made Palsgraf pay the railroad's legal expenses, a total of more than $500. This decision has been criticized by just about every scholar reviewing the case.

The Legacy of Palsgraf

Today, it is impossible to get a law degree in the United States without spending a considerable amount of class time debating the merits of Cardozo and Andrews' standards. Part of this is due to the theoretical depth of the opinion and the fact that it posits two entirely reasonable standards for judging negligence claims. So the next time you are about to jump aboard the Istanbul metro or the Hızlı Feribot, think twice about what could happen if you dropped that package of fireworks under your arm. Who knows what a Turkish court would do? © Gary S. Lachman

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