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Negligence case law

Negligence Cases


The quintessential case involving the extent of liability in a negligence claim is Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co., Ct. of App. of N.Y., 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928). Palsgraff involved a man climbing aboard a Long Island Railroad train carrying a package. An employee of the railroad aided the man in getting on the train and while doing so the man dropped a package that, unbeknownst to the employee or anyone else other than the man carrying the package, contained fireworks. When the fireworks fell to the ground it caused a minor explosion that sent shockwaves through the train car causing injury to Palsgraff (the plaintiff). Subsequently Palsgraff sued the Long Island Railroad in tort for negligence. Both the NY State trial court and the Appellate court found in favor of the plaintiff and on appeal the Court of Appeals of NY (New York's highest court) reversed, finding for the defendant, Long Island Railroad.

In making its decision the court confronted two (2) issues: (1) how is the duty of care that is owed determined; and (2) to whom does a party owe the duty of care to?
In determining who the duty of care is owed the court found that the duty must be owed to a person that can reasonably be foreseen under the circumstances. Here, although the defendant, railroad company, owed a duty of care to the man carrying the package the defendant DID NOT owe a duty of care to the plaintiff because it was unreasonably foreseeable that the package contained fireworks and that the mishandling of the package would result in injury to the plaintiff, who was at the other end of the car. The court referred to this as the "Zone of Danger."
This is a perfect example of how an injury that may have resulted from a defendant's negligence may not be imputed upon them because the DUTY OF CARE that the defendant had was to all foreseeable plaintiffs and the injury that resulted from the firework explosion was not forseeable.

To grasp the idea of proximate and actual causation the case of Byrne v. Boadle, 2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (Exch. 1863) shows a cut and dry model. This case involves the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur, which essentially means, "The thing speaks for itself."

The plaintiff in this action was walking down the street when a barrel fell upon him while directly under the defendant's flour shop. At trial a witness explained that he saw a barrel fall from the window of the flour shop upon the plaintiff's head but there was no evidence of the reason for it.

The court found for the plaintiff citing the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor. The court surmised that the facts, in and of themselves, showed that the barrel was in the possession of the defendant at the time and he had control over it. The courts view was that there is a presumption of negligence when a party is in sole control of the instrument of the injury and that the injury would not have existed without negligence.
This is a prime example of actual and proximate causation. The court found that the defendant was the actual cause because "but for the negligence of defendant the barrel would not have rolled out the window." The court also found the defendant to be the proximate cause. Since there were no intervening forces and the barrel fell directly from the possession of the defendant unto the head of plaintiff there were no intervening forces and it was completely foreseeable that due to the defendant's mishandling of the barrel this injury could reasonably occur.

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