Palsgraf v. The Long Island Railroad Company Case Brief

Summary of Palsgraf v. The Long Island Railroad Company, 248 N.Y. 339; 162 n.e. 99; Court of Appeals of New York [1928]

Facts: Plaintiff was standing on a platform of defendant’s railroad when a train stopped (which was headed in a different direction than the train plaintiff was boarding). Even though it was already moving, two men ran to catch the train. One got on the train with no problem. The other, who was carrying a 15-inch package wrapped in newspaper, appeared to lose his balance while attempting to board the moving train. A guard on the car reached out to help him, while another guard on the platform pushed him from behind onto the train. This act caused the package in the man’s arm to dislodge and fall onto the rails.

Although the package appeared non-descript, it in fact contained fireworks. When the package fell, the fireworks exploded, causing some large scales at the other end of the platform to strike the plaintiff, causing injuries for which the plaintiff sued.

History: The trial court found for the plaintiff. Defendants appealed and the appellate court affirmed the judgment. The railroad then appealed to this court.

Issue: Did the railroad’s negligence proximately cause plaintiff’s injuries?

Ruling: No. The Court of Appeals of New York reversed the decision with Judge Andrews dissenting.

Rule/Analysis: Negligence is not a tort unless it results in the commission of a wrong by violating one’s right. If the harm was not willful, it must be shown that the act had possibilities of apparent danger. Since the harm to plaintiff was not willful on the part of defendant, it had to be shown that the act of dropping a package had the apparent possibility of danger. Since there was nothing on the outside of the package which would cause the reasonable person to believe it contained explosives, there was no negligence and therefore railroad was also not the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries.

Judge Andrews dissented, stating that negligence is a relative concept and proposed that every one owes to the world at large the duty of refraining from those acts that may unreasonably threaten the safety of others.

Summary: There was nothing in the situation to suggest, even to the most cautious person, that the package wrapped in newspaper would explode when dropped. It was the explosion that was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries – an act which could not have been foreseeable – and therefore the railroad was neither negligent nor the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. Judgment of the appellate court was reversed; Judge Andrews dissented.

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