Palsgraf, Circa 1933

A lot of us who teach United States v. Jones (which many of you may know of as “the GPS case”) have the sense that it’s an important decision.  How important, we don’t know.

Our present confusion has many parallels in the past, in which commentators found it difficult to predict how influential a particular decision would be. One example that I particularly like comes from another old study aid, James M. Henderson’s Questions and Answers with Problems and Illustrative Matter on the Law of Torts, Based on all the Standard Text and Case Books, which was published in 1933.  This book (again, really a lengthy pamphlet) was part of Callaghan’s Quizzer Series, which was probably the leading line of study aids for law students back in the early 1930s.  Anyway, Question 68 in the guide provides as follows:

“Q. Where plaintiff is standing on a railway station platform, waiting for a train, and another passenger jumping aboard a moving train is pushed aboard by a guard, dropping a package on the track which explodes, so that the force of the explosion dislodges some scales at the other end of the platform, injuring the plainitff, is the negligence of the guard the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury?

A: No. Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co., 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99, 59 A.L.R. 1253.”

Keep in mind that the Callaghan’s guide poses this question quite early on, immediately after asking and answering the question, “In the legal sense, what is a ‘remote’ cause?”  Clearly, the author had a sense that Palsgraf was an important case.  But why would it prove important?  Here, the author had no clue, given the idiosyncratic facts of the case.  So the author contented himself with relating the perceived “rule” from Palsgraf, in almost comically narrow form.


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