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If no hazard is apparent to the eye of ordinary vigilance, an act innocent and harmless, at least to outward seeming, with reference to a plaintiff, does not take to itself the quality of a tort because it happened to be a wrong, though apparently not one involving the risk of bodily insecurity, with reference to someone else. In every instance, before negligence can be predicated of a given act, back of the act must be sought and found a duty to the individual complaining, the observance of which would have averted or avoided the injury. The ideas of negligence and duty are strictly correlative.
Plaintiff ticket-holding passenger Helen Palsgraf was standing on a platform of defendant Long Island Railroad Company. A man carrying a package jumped aboard the car of a moving train at a nearby platform. A guard in the car reached to help him in, and a guard on the platform pushed the man from behind. The package was dislodged, fell onto the rails, and exploded. The shock of the explosion caused a scales to fall onto plaintiff passenger, who filed this lawsuit for injuries due to defendant's alleged negligence. The trial term court (the Supreme Court) entered a verdict for plaintiff. In 1927, the Supreme Court, Appellate Division affirmed the judgment in favor of plaintiff. These two lower courts held that the negligent acts of the railroad's employees caused the package that contained explosives to be thrown under the train where they exploded. Defendant railroad sought appeal to the Court of Appeals of New York.
(Procedural note: In the New York state court system, the Supreme Court is the trial level. The Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division hears cases on first appeal. The highest court is the Court of Appeals of New York -- this is the court for the instant decision.)
In an action for injuries sustained during an explosion when a package was dropped on a nearby rail, was defendant railroad liable for negligence due to its guards' conduct in pushing the man carrying the package?
In 1928, the Court of Appeals of New York reversed the judgments of the appellate division and the trial term of the Supreme Court. Ruling in favor of defendant railroad, the Court dismissed plaintiff passenger's complaint. The Court found that the conduct of the railroad's guards was not a wrong or negligence in relation to plaintiff, standing far away. 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. The Court explained that negligence is not actionable unless it involves the invasion of a legally protected interest--the violation of a right, which in this case was claimed to be the right to be protected against interference with one's bodily security. Bodily security is not protected against all forms of interference or aggression, but only against some. Negligence is the absence of care, according to the circumstances. The Court concluded that there was no negligence because defendant railroad could not have reasonably foreseen that its employees' conduct would have resulted in injury to plaintiff Palsgraff. The Court noted that the plaintiff had sued in her own right for a wrong personal to her, and not as the vicarious beneficiary of a breach of duty to another.