NEGLIGENCE: DUTY AND FORESEEABILITY
The overwhelming number of personal injury cases involve an act of “negligence” by one individual that results in an injury to another. However, the fact that one individual’s negligent act results in another individual’s injury does not automatically create a valid basis for a lawsuit by the injured party against the negligent party.
The most famous “tort” (“tort”= a civil wrong) case studied by every law student for generations is Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad. Mr. Palsgraf was standing on a train platform after buying his ticket, near some scales. At the other end of the platform some men were rushing onto a train. Conductors on the train helped the men aboard, but in the rush one man dropped a package which contained fireworks. The fireworks exploded, causing the scales near Mr. Palsgraf, at the other end of the platform, to fall and injure Mr. Palsgraf. Was the LIRR liable to Mr. Palsgraf for the injury he sustained?
The appeals court discussed whether, in the first instance, there was any duty owed Mr. Palsgraf by the LIRR and its conductors, since he was so far from the scene of the activity involving the alleged negligence. The lower court ruled that there was a duty owed to Mr. Palsgraf. The appeals court (overruling the lower court that found in favor of Mr. Palsgraf) decided that it was not reasonably foreseeable that the action by the conductors would result in injury to someone as remote as Mr. Palsgraf was to the scene of the acts. Consequently, there being no “duty”, there is no basis for the LIRR’s liability !
Since that case, courts have differed considerably in determining the basis as to whether negligent parties owe a duty to, and therefore become liable for, injuries that occur to remote individuals. The Palsgraf court established the principle of “foreseeability”–would a reasonable person have foreseen the possibility of the incident resulting in injury, in the manner the accident occurred?
Other courts have adopted a broader definition: was there a continuous and direct connection between the cause (the negligent act) and the effect (the injury)? “Foreseeability” of the exact occurrence is not as dramatic an issue in this latter scenario.