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What was the case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company concerning proximate causation?

The most famous case on the meaning of proximate causation resulted from an unfortunate incident on a Long Island Railroad station. Two men attempted to board a train as it was leaving the Queens' Jamaica Station.

Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928), concerned a man who jumped onto the train car but another man (never identified) carrying a package barely made it. One guard on the car pulled the man up, while another guard ran and pushed the man from behind. This dislodged the man's package, which fell upon the rails. The package—covered by newspaper—contained fireworks. The fireworks exploded and knocked down some scales that struck a 43-year-old woman named Helen Palsgraf at the other end of the platform.

Palsgraf sued the railroad company for negligence. A trial court awarded her $6,000. An appeals court affirmed the award. However, the New York Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) reversed 4 to 3 in a majority opinion by Benjamin Cardozo, who would later serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Cardozo reasoned that there was no proximate causation because injury to Mrs. Palsgraf was not reasonably foreseeable by the train station. "Nothing in the situation gave notice the falling package had in it the potency of peril to persons thus removed,"

Slip-and-fall accidents can easily lead to lawsuits, but injuries may not always be the fault of the company or individual being sued (iStock).

Slip-and-fall accidents can easily lead to lawsuits, but injuries may not always be the fault of the company or individual being sued (iStock).

he wrote. "Here, by concession, there was nothing in the situation to suggest to the most cautious mind that the parcel wrapped in newspaper would spread wreckage through the station."

Judge William S. Andrews wrote a dissenting opinion, believing that the duty owed by the railroad station extended beyond those within a certain radius or zone of danger. "Every one owes to the world at large the duty of refraining from those acts that may unreasonably threaten the safety of others," he wrote. Andrews noted that the negligent act by the railroad employee that knocked the package was a "substantial factor in producing the result." He also pointed out that "there was no remoteness in time" and that "injury in some form was most probable."

Can a business be liable for injuries caused to its patrons by third parties?

Yes, though the outcome is fact-intensive and may—like much of tort law—vary from state to state. The general rule—provided for in the Restatement of Torts (Second)—is that businesses can be liable for third-party criminal attacks that are reasonably foreseeable if the business owner takes little or no security precautions.

For example, let's say that a shopping mall experiences a rash of crime, including robberies and assaults of its patrons. The mall fails to provide increased lighting or for an extra security guard to patrol the mall parking lots. A jury may find that the mall owner's refusal to provide increased security measures crosses the line into negligent behavior, particularly when the mall owner knew about the prior incidents of crime.

However, the shopping mall owner will contend that the criminal act of the third party was a superseding, intervening cause that broke the chain of causation. This may be a difficult argument for the mall owner to advance if it can be established that the mall owner knew of existing crime on the premises.

The answer also could depend on whether a court finds that there is a special relationship to protect patrons or customers. The California Supreme Court ruled that there was a special relationship and potential premise liability when a patron warned a bouncer about impending trouble from people in and near the bar. The patron was later beaten severely right outside the bar. On that set of facts, the California high

LegalSpeak: Delgado v. Trax Bar & Grill (Cal. 2005)

Even when proprietors such as those described above have no duty under Ann M. and Sharon P. to provide a security guard or undertake other similarly burdensome preventative measures, the proprietor is not necessarily insulated from liability under the special relationship doctrine. A proprietor that has no duty under Ann M. and Sharon P. to hire a security guard or to undertake other similarly burdensome preventative measures still owes a duty of due care to a patron or invitee by virtue of the special relationship, and there are circumstances (apart from the failure to provide a security guard or undertake other similarly burdensome preventative measures) that may give rise to liability based upon the proprietor's special relationship....

Moreover, as especially relevant to the present case, California decisions long have recognized, under the special relationship doctrine, that a proprietor who serves intoxicating drinks to customers for consumption on the premises must "exercis[e] reasonable care to protect his patrons from injury at the hands of fellow guests", and that such a duty "arises . when one or more of the following circumstances exists: (1) A tavern keeper allowed a person on the premises who has a known propensity for fighting; (2) the tavern keeper allowed a person to remain on the premises whose conduct had become obstreperous and aggressive to such a degree the tavern keeper knew or ought to have known he endangered others; (3) the tavern keeper had been warned of danger from an obstreperous patron and failed to take suitable measures for the protection of others; (4) the tavern keeper failed to stop a fight as soon as possible after it started; (5) the tavern keeper failed to provide a staff adequate to police the premises; and (6) the tavern keeper tolerated disorderly conditions."

court found there was a duty of care owed to the patron and that it was reasonably foreseeable that this attack could happen.

 
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