Benjamin Franklin was one of the first Americans to recognize that our actions (or inactions) have virtually limitless indirect consequences, when he wrote a few lines about “for the want of a horseshoe-nail” in an issue of Poor Richard’s Almanac. The example is that because a blacksmith did not have a nail for a horseshoe, a rider could not join the battle, the battle was lost, and so was the kingdom.
This principle is undoubtedly true in everyday life, but in negligence cases, the line must be drawn somewhere. Since 1928, that “somewhere” has been the foreseeability rule, as enunciated in the New York case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company.
Apparently seeking a respite from a rather acrimonious divorce action, Ms. Palsgraf decided to take her daughters to Rockaway Beach for the day. They arrived at the station a little early, and waited on the platform for their soon-to-be departing train.
On the opposite end of the platform, a tardy passenger, whom some witnesses described as quite overweight, rushed to board a train as it pulled away from the platform. As he tried to get on board the speeding train, in a scene reminiscent of a Three Stooges movie, one railroad assistant tried to push the man into the car from behind as another one endeavored to pull him in from the front.
In all this helter-skelter movement, the man dropped his newspaper, and there were explosives tucked inside the newspaper. According to most, this gentleman was an Italian immigrant who planned to shoot off red, white, and green fireworks to celebrate Liberation Day, which is that nation’s equivalent of the Fourth of July; according to others, the Italian man was an anarchist and terrorist who had something more sinister in mind. For negligence law purposes, his intent is interesting but largely irrelevant.
Regardless, when the package hit the ground, the fireworks (or whatever they were) exploded. That explosion triggered a sonic wave that knocked over a large pair of scales onto Ms. Palsgraf, “causing injuries for which she sues.”
Majority Rule: Foreseeability
There was no doubt among any of the judges that the careless railroad workers violated the standard of care. Legal causation, which is the fourth element in a negligence case, was a different matter.
Judge Benjamin Cardozo, who was later elevated to the United States Supreme Court, almost immediately noted that evidence of “negligence in the air” is insufficient to support a claim for damages. He therefore reasoned that Ms. Palsgraf was physically too far away from the careless act to have a claim for damages against the railway company.
To bring Palsgraf into modern terms, assume that a car crash victim with a seriously-injured leg goes to a local hospital, and the surgeon amputates the wrong limb. While the tortfeasor (negligent driver) is clearly responsible for the initial injuries, the tortfeasor is not responsible for any subsequent injuries, because s/he could not have foreseen the surgeon’s negligence.
Minority Rule: Zone of Danger
The foreseeability rule is expanded in some instances, because of a dissenting opinion from Judge William Andrews. He countered that Judge Cardozo’s foreseeability rule was “too narrow,” and that a broader zone-of-danger test should apply.
Today, the minority rule applies to bystander injuries in car crash cases; for example, if a child is physically hurt in a car crash and the child’s uninjured parents were in the car as well, the adults have a claim for emotional distress damages. The minority rule sometimes applies in cases that involve illegal activity as well, such as drunk driving crashes.