Poor Ms. Palsgraf

On Behalf of | Aug 14, 2015 | Personal Injury

Foreseeability is one of the key elements in a car crash case. While it is foreseeable that an intoxicated driver will crash into another car, it is not foreseeable that a drunk driver will crash into a fireworks factory, and the explosion will injure someone on the next block. Although the facts of the case are still disputed, a decision from the New York Court of Appeals in 1928 is one of the leading cases on this issue.


The dispute in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad began with a trip to Coney Island. Ms. Palsgraf, who was apparently going through a separation from her husband, thought that a day at an amusement park might be a welcome diversion for her two daughters.

While they waited for a train to take them to Rockway Beach, another train en route to another destination departed from the opposite side of the platform. As sometimes happened, a tardy passenger tried to board the train after it was already in motion. One Pullman tried to pull the man into the car, while another one pushed him from the platform. In all the confusion, no one noticed the small package under the man’s arm.

In all the jostling, the man dropped the package, which contained fireworks. They exploded, and the shock wave cause a penny scale to fall on top of Ms. Palsgraf. About a week later, a doctor diagnosed her with “traumatic hysteria.” She sued the railroad and obtained a $6,000 judgment.


In an opinion by Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo, who later served on the United States Supreme Court, the majority reversed the trial court’s action. He bluntly stated that the railroad employees’ action “was not a wrong in its relation to the plaintiff, [because she was] standing far away,” adding that, “Negligence in the abstract, apart from things related, is surely not a tort.” In other words, a plaintiff cannot recover for indirect injury.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge William Andrews claimed the majority defined “negligence” too narrowly, and he embraced the zone-of-danger concept. “Due care is a duty imposed on each one of us to protect society from unnecessary danger, not to protect A, B or C alone,” he wrote.


The concept of foreseeability is much like the concept of actual damage. Just like the plaintiff must suffer a direct injury, the defendant must directly cause the plaintiff’s damages. The “zone-of-danger” rule never took root in the law, and it probably never will.

To obtain fair compensation in a negligence case, the plaintiff must prove all essential elements. For a free consultation with an experienced New Braunfels personal injury lawyer that builds successful cases one piece of evidence at a time, contact our office. We do not charge upfront legal fees in a personal injury case.