Palsgraf is unquestionably the most famous case in American tort 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 August 24, 1924, waiting for a train to take her and her two daughters to Rockaway Beach. While she was waiting for her train, another train pulled in, 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.
Unbeknownst to the railroad workers, the package contained fireworks. The men were on their way to a celebration in Queens, and had brought several rockets with them to light up. As soon as the package hit the ground, it exploded. The explosion could be heard several blocks away; a stampede erupted on the crowded platform as people began running. Ambulances arrived from nearby hospitals. Thirteen people were hurt by burns and minor abrasions.
Palsgraf, at the other end of the platform, was not hurt by the explosion itself. Rather, the explosion knocked over a large scale next to Palsgraf, which fell on her and struck her in 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 (they name their courts backwards, apparently because of an idea that the lowest court should be "supreme" in the eyes of the people).
Palsgraf enlisted the help of Matthew Wood, a solo practitioner with an office in the Woolworth Building. He spent $142.45 preparing the case against the Long Island Railroad, $125 of which went to pay an expert witness, Dr. Graeme Hammond, to testify that Palsgraf had developed traumatic hysteria.
The railroad spent a total of sixteen dollars 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 six thousand dollars in damages on May 26, 1927. LIRR moved for a new trial, but its motion was denied.
Having exhausted its options at the trial court level, LIRR appealed the case to the Appellate Divison. 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.
In their appellate briefs, Palsgraf and the railroad disagreed over what the employees in question were exactly doing. Palsgraf maintained that they were pushing the passengers onto the train; the railroad said the passengers had jumped on the train, and that the employees were trying to keep them from falling off.
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: by happy accident, the judge writing the opinion in Palsgraf was Benjamin Cardozo, one of the most famous jurists in American history.
Cardozo wrote that "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 some one else, nor conduct "wrongful" because unsocial, but not "a wrong" to any one... 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. Should we drive down Broadway at a reckless speed, we are negligent whether we strike an approaching car or miss it by an inch. The act itself is wrongful. It is a wrong not only to those who happen to be within the radius of danger but to all who might have been there -- a wrong to the public at large... Due care is a duty imposed on each one of us to protect society from unnecessary danger, not to protect A, B or C alone."
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? Is the effect of cause on result not too attentuated? Is the cause likely, in the usual judgment of mankind, to produce the result? Or by the exercise of prudent foresight could the result be foreseen? Is the result too remote from the cause, and here we consider remoteness in time and space. Clearly we must so consider, for the greater the distance either in time or space, the more surely do other causes intervene to affect the result."
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 five hundred dollars. This decision has been criticized by just about every scholar reviewing the case, with the notable exception of Judge Richard Posner. There has also been round criticism of how Cardozo presented the facts of the case: he greatly simplified the circumstances inside the station that day, and noticably exaggerated Palsgraf's distance from the train.
The legacy of Palsgraf
The facts in Palsgraf will probably never be repeated, and as a result the case has never proven precedential in any significant sense. Yet the opinion became required reading in torts classes practically overnight, and achieved universal notoriety by the mid-1930's. 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. Part of this is due to the urban legend-like facts of the case, and the mental images that are easy to draw from those facts.
Many scholars have drilled into the Palsgraf case. Richard Epstein, a well-known contemporary legal scholar, claims that "the facts as stated seem to violate the laws of physics." Another legal scholar, Edward Adams, joined forces with a physicist and neurologist to argue that neither standard enunciated in Palsgraf stands up when confronted with the realities of chaos theory. "In a world with a very large number of variables, it would be a mistake to attempt to understand how all of these variables interact using linear notions of philosophy and mathematics. Proximate cause, which attempts to establish a causal nexus or link between one variable and other variables, doesn't account for the limits of the linear notions on which it is based."
Palsgraf died in 1945. The Long Island Rail Road is still around. Cardozo became a justice on the United States Supreme Court in 1932, where he was a noted supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs: he died in 1938. Andrews died in 1928, only months after writing his dissent, and he is now chiefly remembered for a minority opinion in a state court case, although he will be remembered by many American law students for many years to come.
- Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co., 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (1928)
- Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co., 222 A.D. 166, 225 N.Y.S. 412 (1927)
- Adams et al., "At the End of Palsgraf, There is Chaos: An Assessment of Proximate Cause in Light of Chaos Theory," 59 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 507 (1998)
- Epstein, "Causation and Financial Compensation: Two Fallacies in the Law of Joint Torts," 73 Geo. L.J. 1377 (1985)
- Manz, "Palsgraf: Cardozo's Urban Legend?" 107 Dick. L. Rev. 785 (2003)