The scene is New York City, 1928. A woman named Helen Palsgraf is standing on the train platform waiting to catch a ride to Rockaway Beach. Another train arrives, and two men run past her to catch it. One gets aboard, but the other has trouble because he is carrying a small unmarked box wrapped in newspaper. When he is helped aboard by two platform guards, one aboard the train already and the other on the platform, he drops the package. The package is full of fireworks, which go off and damage some scales at the other end of the platform. These scales injure Mrs. Palsgraf, who sues the railroad company for negligence in her injury.
The Opinion of the Court
The New York Court of Appeals found that there was no proof of negligence on the part of the railroad as the employees had not ignored Mrs. Palsgraf. Instead, they noticed that she was standing far enough away that, without being aware of the contents of the package, they and their actions should have caused her no harm. The majority conclusion written by Cheif Justice Cardozo states, “In every instance, before negligence can be predicated of a given act, back of the act must be sought and found a duty to the individual complaining, the observance of which would have averted or avoided the injury.”
Essentially it was decided that negligence must be defined as intentional and willful ignorance of a visible risk. The majority opinion also states that evidence of “negligence in the air, so to speak,” is not sufficient to find a defendant guilty.
There was a dissenting opinion, as well, written by Justice Andrews. This opinion observes that the negligence was not in the injury of Mrs. Palsgraf but in the knocking of the unmarked package from the intending boarder’s hand. This dissenting opinion brought into play the concept that makes this case so notable: proximate cause.
Justice Andrews felt that, before acting to help the man aboard the train, the employee should have considered what their actions could do to anyone else in the train station. He felt that the employee was thoroughly responsible for the chain of events that led to the plaintiff’s injury, and the company could be held accountable. As he states, “Unreasonable risk being taken, its consequences are not confined to those who might probably be hurt.” Nevertheless, it was a 4-3 decision against the plaintiff.
Consequences of the Case
This case is in keeping with the other cases of this sort in its time. However, more recently, companies have been held accountable for less and less predictable events that were decided using Justice Andrew’s proximate cause. In modern society, the repercussions of any action can be considered the fault of the person performing said action, whether the consequence was foreseeable or not.
For examples of other cases with similar bases, see Martin v. Herzog, Paul v. Consol. Fireworks Co., Adams v. Bullock, Parrott v. Wells-Fargo Co., Munsey v. Webb, Condran v. Park & Tilford, or Robert v. U.S.E.F. Corp. The idea of proximate cause is now considered important enough that this case is commonly studied by first-year law students as an excellent example and definition for the term.
Mario Flores is a legal specialist concentrating on Criminal Defense, DUI, Personal Injury, Civil Procedure and other critical areas of law.