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Forgotten Legal History: The Story behind Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.

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January 27, 2021

By Susan Healy

The first paragraph of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928), reads like the opening scene of an action movie: a last minute passenger jumps aboard a moving train and almost falls, but is saved when a guard shoves him aboard, A mysterious package wrapped in newspaper falls on the tracks and explodes. And somewhere in the distance a woman is hit by falling scales. Lawyers can recite the facts of the landmark Palsgraf case no matter how long ago they graduated from law school, but the bare-bones facts in Benjamin Cardozo’s majority opinion don’t tell the whole story.

Moreover, they may bear little resemblance to what really happened. One law review article calls the decision “Cardozo’s Urban Legend.” Another author compares it to a law school exam question that is both written by and answered by the professor.

The explosion was front page news. The New York Times reported that the blast was heard blocks away and described the “panic-stricken crowd.”  A local paper added a deadpan commentary that would have made a great meme, if there had been such things as memes in 1924: “The usual number of women fainted.” One of the thirteen people injured that day was Helen Palsgraf, who was treated at the scene for shock.

The New York Times article makes no mention of a railroad guard helping the man with the fireworks onto the train. Instead, it reports that the Bomb Squad’s investigation had determined that the man dropped the package when he was “jostled by the crowd.” That version is consistent with Palsgraf’s complaint, which didn’t mention the guard, and alleged that the railroad was negligent in failing to prevent explosives from being carried on the train and in inadequately staffing the platform during times when passengers congregated and “jostled” each other as they attempted to board. If the railroad guard didn’t cause the package to drop, was the railroad negligent at all? Maybe generations of law students have struggled to understand a case that should have ended with a zero verdict in the trial court.

The man with the package might have told a different story, but he didn’t testify. According to the New York Times, he disappeared into the crowd after the explosion, along with his two traveling companions (one of the three men never made it into the written opinion, which mentions only two last-minute travelers who jumped on the train). There was testimony at trial that the mystery man was last seen leaving the station on the same train he was shoved onto. Either way, he was never found. At least that explains why the one character in this story who was so clearly negligent wasn’t named as a defendant along with the railroad. I had always imagined that he had settled with poor Mrs. P.

Nor did the “helpful” guard testify. At trial, the only fact witnesses were Mrs. Palsgraf, her daughters Elizabeth (about 12 years old at the time of the accident) and Lillian (about 9 at the time), and Grace and Herbert Gerhardt. Mr. and Mrs. Gerhardt were the only witnesses to the cause of the explosion. They testified to the version that appeared in the opinion, saying that they both saw the railroad’s platform man push a young man onto the train, which caused the young man to drop the package.

There may be reason to doubt the Gerhardts’ version. They came forward as witnesses and contacted Mrs. Palsgraf’s lawyer shortly before trial. The fact that the lawyer had not spoken to them before he filed the complaint in this case could explain why the theory of negligence changed at trial. But subsequent events hint that the Gerhardts may have had a financial incentive to lie. Soon after the verdict came back in favor of Mrs. P., the Gerhardts sued the railroad for their own injuries, using the same lawyer. It seems that Mrs. Gerhardt had been one of the “usual number” of fainting women.

The railroad’s lawyer did nothing to challenge the Gerhardt’s version of events, even though it conflicted with the newspaper reports and the Bomb Squad’s findings. He called no witnesses and made no objection to the trial judge’s instruction to the jurors that the facts were undisputed.

One crucial fact is completely missing from the record – how far away was Mrs. Palsgraf from the explosion? The railroad’s attorney asked her, but she was unable to answer because she didn’t see where the explosion had occurred. Mr. Gerhardt testified that he saw both the explosion and the scale, but neither lawyer asked him about the distance between the two. Decades later, a legal historian reviewed old blueprints and photographs of the station and concluded that she may have been 6 feet or less from the blast.

It is possible that the distance would not have mattered anyway. The published opinion says that the scales fell “many feet away,” but the decision that the railroad owed her no duty doesn’t appear to have hinged on whether “many feet away” meant five, ten or a hundred feet.

Nor does the decision depend on who the plaintiff was. All we know about her from the opinion is that “the plaintiff” (her name appears only in the style of the case) bought a train ticket to Rockaway Beach and was injured while she waited on the platform. Why did Cardozo include that single, oddly specific and completely irrelevant detail about her intended destination? It’s likely that we will never know.

Unlike the published opinion, the trial record – even as maddingly incomplete as it is – at least provides Helen Palsgraf with a history. It also hints at her bleak future. She was a 40-year-old single mother, separated from her husband and supporting her daughters by doing housework parttime. She received a $10 rent credit in exchange for working as the janitor for her building. The accident left her with a nervous disorder and a speech impediment that eventually rendered her completely mute. Today she might be diagnosed with PTSD.

Before the accident, Mrs. Paslgraf had earned $416 a year. After the accident, she was unable to work. The bill for treatment of her injuries hadn’t been paid at the time of the trial, three years later. Her neighbors covered her janitorial duties for her as long as they could, but she eventually lost her rent credit. Her daughters left school to support the family. As a result of the appeal, not only was her $6000 compensatory damage award reversed, she was also ordered to reimburse the railroad $559.60 for its costs and fees.

But that decision also gave her a kind of immortality. Every first-year law student knows her name, and her descendants are treated like celebrities by lawyers when they learn they have met the family of the woman whose name is attached to the most famous torts case in American legal history.

Susan Healy teaches in the Legal Studies Department at Florida Gulf Coast University. She has always been curious about the stories behind famous cases and hopes to turn her obsession into a regular feature in “Experience Matters.” 

Source materials for this article:

William H. Manz, Palsgraf: Cardozo’s Urban Legend?, Dick. L. Rev., Spring 2003, at 107.

John T. Noonan, Persons and Masks of the Law: Cardozo, Holmes, Jeferson and Wythe as Makers of the Masks 111-151 (1976);

Bomb Blast Injures 13 in Station Crowd, N.Y. Times, Aug. 24, 1924, at A1.

Fireworks Blast Which Injured 13 Probed By Police, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 25, 1924, at 18.

Record in Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co., 248 N.Y. 339 (1928);