The Danger Zone in Tort Law 1926

The Danger Zone in Tort Law 1926
The toppling of a penny scale, similar to the one shown here, prompted a ruling that introduced the concept of foreseeability into tort law, limiting liability to reasonably foreseeable consequences of a negligent act. | The Danger Zone in Tort Law 1926

The Danger Zone in Tort Law 1926

Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.

Rule

Because it happened to be a wrong, though apparently not one involving the risk of bodily insecurity, with reference to someone else, an act innocent and harmless, at least on the surface, with reference to a plaintiff, does not take on the quality of a tort because it happened to be a wrong, though apparently not one involving the risk of bodily insecurity. In every case, before carelessness can be attributed to a specific conduct, the act must be traced back to a responsibility owed to the person who is complaining, which if followed would have prevented or mitigated the injury. The concepts of negligence and obligation are inextricably linked.

Facts of the Case

Plaintiff is a passenger with a valid ticket. Helen Palsgraf was on the defendant Long Island Railroad Company’s platform. At an adjacent platform, a man carrying a package rushed aboard the car of a running train. A security in the car leaned out to assist him, and a guard on the platform shoved him backwards. The package became dislodged and exploded as it dropped onto the rails. A scale fell upon plaintiff passenger as a result of the explosion’s shock, and plaintiff brought this action for injuries caused by defendant’s alleged negligence. Plaintiff was found guilty by the trial term court (the Supreme Court). The plaintiff’s verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in 1927. These two lower courts ruled that the railroad’s employees’ negligence caused the explosives package to be dropped under the train, where it exploded. Defendant railroad filed an appeal with the New York Court of Appeals.

(Procedural note: The Supreme Court is the trial level in the New York state court system.) The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York considers cases on first appeal. The Court of Appeals of New York is the highest court in the state, and it is this court that will make the final decision.)

ISSUE: Was the defendant railroad liable for negligence in a lawsuit for injuries incurred after an explosion when a package was thrown on a nearby rail due to its guards’ behavior in shoving the man carrying the package?

ANSWER: No

CONCLUSION:

In 1928, the New York Court of Appeals overturned the appellate division’s and the Supreme Court’s trial term verdicts. The Court dismissed plaintiff passenger’s complaint, ruling in favor of respondent railroad. The court determined that the train guards’ actions were not unlawful or negligent in relation to plaintiff, who was standing far away. There was nothing in the situation to imply that the parcel wrapped in newspaper would cause havoc across the station, even to the most cautious mind. The Court explained that negligence is not actionable unless it results in the infringement of a legally protected interest—in this case, the right to be safeguarded against interference with one’s bodily security. Only some types of interfering or aggressive behavior are shielded against bodily security. Negligence is defined as a lack of care in a certain situation. The Court found no fault because defendant railroad could not have reasonably predicted that its workers’ actions would result in plaintiff Palsgraff’s injuries. The plaintiff had sued in her own right for a personal wrong, not as the vicarious beneficiary of another’s breach of duty, the Court remarked.

SEE ALSO:

The Expansion of Consumer Rights (1916);

Strict Products Liability (1941);

The Hot Coffee Case (1994);

Limits on Punitive Damages (1996).

SOURCES:

The Danger Zone in Tort Law 1926

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)

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