In 1928 the New York Court of Appeals issued one of the most famous cases in United States history in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. The decision is regularly studied in law schools around the county and established the idea of foreseeability in tort law.
In a bizarre turn of events, this case began when Helen Palsgraf went to a train station. A train, owned by the Long Island Railroad Co., began to pull away from the platform and tardy passengers raced to get on board.
One man, carrying a package, attempted to jump on to the moving train. A guard that was on the train attempted to pull the man onboard. At the same time, another guard tried to help the man by pushing him onto the train.
During this interchange, the man's package, which was covered in newspaper, fell and hit the tracks. It turned out that it was full of fireworks. When the package hit the ground, it caused a large explosion.
The shock wave from the explosion shook the platform. Palsgraf was at the other end of it near some scales. The scales fell over and injured her.
Palsgraf brought suit against the Long Island Railroad Co. She asserted that but for the railroad employee's negligence, the accident would not have occurred and she would not have been injured.
The trial court held in favor of Ms. Palsgraf. On appeal, the appellate court agreed that the railroad should bear liability, however, it was a close call. The vote was 3 to 2 in favor of the plaintiff.
The case was appealed to New York's highest appellate court, the New York Court of Appeals and the court agreed to hear the case.
The idea that a person could be held liable for his or her negligence was well established at the time of this opinion.
Generally, to establish a case of negligence, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty of care to the plaintiff, breached that duty, and that the breach caused harm to the plaintiff.
The unique question in this case centered on whether or not a defendant has a duty to an unforeseeable plaintiff.
Like the intermediate appellate court, the Court of Appeals had a very narrow majority. The Court ruled 4 to 3 in favor of the defendant.
Judge Cardozo wrote the opinion for the majority. His position was that duty should focus on foreseeability. If a particular consequence of an act was reasonably foreseeable, then that person should bear liability for negligence. If the consequence was not reasonably foreseeable, then the actor should not be held liable, even if the actor caused the consequence through a negligent act.
That was exactly what happened to Palsgraf. The railroad guards' actions in pulling and pushing the man carrying fireworks caused the explosion that harmed Palsgraf. The guards may even have been negligent in pushing and pulling the man onto the train. But there was not sufficient foreseeability to create a duty. The pushing and pulling could not foreseeably have resulted in an explosion that would cause scales at the other end of the platform to fall. It simply wasn't something they could have expected to happen from their actions. Because questions of duty can be determined by the court
In a famous dissenting opinion, Judge Andrews said that he thought the case should be decided on a question of proximate cause. Under his analysis, the court should find liability if a duty to anyone was breached. Thus there would have been liability to Palsgraf if the guards were liable to the man with the package.
Ultimately, the Court found in favor of the defendants and accordingly dismissed the case.