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Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R

Citation. 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (1928)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant helped to push a man aboard a train. The man’s package fell. Inside were firecrackers, which exploded causing some scales to fall and injure Plaintiff

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Chief Justice Cardozo, writing for the majority held that negligence is based on the foreseeability of the harm between the parties. Justice Andrews, writing for the minority stated that each person owes an absolute duty of care; i.e. each person must refrain from acts (foreseeable or not) that unreasonably threaten the safety of others.


Mrs. Palsgraf (Plaintiff) was standing on a platform after she bought a ticket from Long Island R.R. (Defendant). Two men ran to catch a train that was pulling out from the platform. The first man jumped aboard. The second man, who was carrying a package, attempted to jump aboard the car, however he was unsteady. A guard on the train, who had held the door open, reached forward to help him in, and another guard on the platform pushed him from behind at the same time. In this act, the package the man was carrying was dislodged and fell upon the rails. The package contained fireworks, but there was nothing from its appearance to give notice of its contents. The fireworks exploded when they fell. The shock of the explosion threw down some scales at the other end of the platform, many feet away. The stales struck Plaintiff, causing injuries for which she sues. Plaintiff sued Defendant. Plaintiff was awarded damages. Defendant appealed.


Does a Defendant owe a duty of care to Plaintiff who is outside the reasonably foreseeable zone of danger?


No. Judgment reversed.
* A duty that is owed must be determined from the risk that can reasonably be foreseen under the circumstances. A defendant owes a duty of care only to those plaintiffs who are in the reasonably foreseeable zone of danger.
* If no hazard is apparent to the eye of ordinary vigilance, an act innocent and harmless does not become a tort because it happened to be wrong with reference to someone else. The conduct in relation to Defendant’s guard was wrong in relation to the man carrying the parcel.
* However, it was not wrong in relation to Plaintiff who was standing so far away. There was no indication that the parcel contained fireworks. There was no showing by Plaintiff that the act had such great possibilities of danger as to entitle a party to protection against that act.
* For there to be a finding of negligence there must first be a finding that Defendant owes a duty to Plaintiff and that the injury could have been avoided by the Defendant.
* The plaintiff must prove that her rights were violated and the duty that Defendant owed to her was transgressed. It is not enough that Plaintiff merely prove that a duty that was owed to another was transgressed. While it is clear that Defendant violated its duty to the person carrying the fireworks, Defendant did not violate any foreseeable duties to Plaintiff.
* It was unforeseeable that a package being carried would explode and cause any damage to Plaintiff. Even if the guard had intentionally taken the package and thrown it, he would not have threatened Plaintiff’s safety. Defendant’s liability for an intentional act cannot be greater when an act is inadvertent or unintentional.


(Justice Andrews) Everyone owes the world at large the duty of refraining from those acts that may unreasonably threaten the safety of others. In determining proximate cause the court must ask itself whether there was a natural and continuous sequence between the cause and effect, and not whether the act would reasonably be expected to injure another. If not for the explosion, she would not have been injured.


This case identifies two ways to determine if a duty is owed to Plaintiff: (1) the Cardozo method; and (2) the Andrews method:
* (C.J. Cardozo) Negligence is based on the foreseeability of harm between the parties. C.J. Cardozo’s opinion is the majority view and is referred to as the zone of danger view. Thus liability for negligence is limited to what was foreseeable and what duties were owed that were reasonably foreseeable prior to the negligent act. Thus to recover, a plaintiff must be a foreseeable plaintiff and be in the zone of danger.
* (J. Andrews) Each person owes an absolute duty of care; each person must refrain from acts (foreseeable or not) that unreasonably threaten the safety of others. Under J. Andrews’ view, everyone is a foreseeable plaintiff.

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