On August 24, 1924, Helen Palsgraf- a 40 year old janitor and housekeeper- decided to take her daughters Lillian (age 12) and Elizabeth (age 15), to Rockaway Beach. Getting there meant taking a train from where they lived in Brooklyn, and so they went to the East New York station on Atlantic Avenue. While they waited another train got ready to leave, and just as it was pulling out of the station two men ran to get on. One did easily, but the other- later described as an Italian American- had to be pushed on so he could grab the hand of a crew member. Unfortunately for Helen, the pushing  led to the man dropping a package he was carrying: a package of fireworks that exploded.

In the resulting panic at the station a tall, coin-operated scale fell on Helen. After grabbing her daughters (Lillian had gone around the corner to buy a newspaper) Helen was treated at the station and took a taxi home, but soon had developed trembling and stammering. She filed suit against the railroad company in October for negligence, but by the time the case went to trial in 1926 Helen had been forced to stop working and been diagnosed with depression and trauma.

 

The Case

Helen won in the lower courts (an all-male jury awarding her $6,000.) The case was eventually argued up to New York’s Court of Appeals where future Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote a majority opinion reversing the lower court, saying that the railroad had no way of knowing in advance that there’d be a package of fireworks there that day and so couldn’t have been negligent since they wouldn’t have known to take precaution against an explosion.

 

The Point

This case is famous in the USA for its discussion of risk and negligence: it’s probably the only case in every tort law casebook, as former Seventh Circuit Justice Richard Posner once noted. Commentary on the holding has been around practically from when Cardozo ruled, with Cardozo’s opinion heavily criticized as being abstract and excluding vital descriptions of Helen Palsgraff, while being praised as cleanly written, masterfully logical answer to what’s basically a law school exam question come to life.

As for Helen, things didn’t get better. By the time she died at age 61 she had become mute and suffered several health problems from the accident. She was understandably bitter about losing, but it seems her family has grown to love their association with the case as time has gone: partly from lawyers routinely treating them as celebrities!