Foreseeability, Flying Body Parts and Estate Liability – Palsgraf Reprise

January 23, 2012 | Erika Eckley


In every negligence case, the plaintiff must establish the existence of four elements: duty, breach of that duty, causation, and damages.   On the element of damages, the issue of foreseeability has baffled many since the landmark Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928) decision.   Written by Justice Cardozo, the Palsgraf opinion set the standard for establishing a duty owed to a plaintiff from the foreseeability of injury from the defendant’s conduct.   

In the Palsgraf case, the plaintiff was standing on a railroad platform waiting for a train. Another passenger was rushing to catch a departing train and jumped aboard, but appeared to be falling. A railway employee on the car attempted to pull the passenger while an employee on the platform attempted to push him into the car. Because of this, the passenger dropped a wrapped package he was carrying, which happened to contain fireworks. The fireworks exploded when they fell. This explosion knocked some scales over onto Ms. Palsgraf, and she was injured.  She sued the railroad. The court ultimately held that the injury to Ms. Palsgraf was too remote and not a foreseeable injury from the employees’ actions in pushing the passenger onto the car. Because she was not a foreseeable plaintiff from the railway employees’ actions, the railroad owed her no duty.

In a modern day twist on the classic case, the Appellate Court of Illinois recently grappled with a messy issue of foreseeability in another injury caused by bizarre circumstances.  Under the facts of the case, an 18-year-old commuter was killed when he was struck by a fast-moving Amtrak train as he made his way across a designated crosswalk in a Chicago Metra station.  The train that struck the deceased was not designated to stop at the Metra station, so the engineer maintained its speed of 73 miles per hour but sounded a whistle and flashed its headlamps as it approached the station.

It is unknown whether the deceased realized the train was approaching. He was seen smiling at bystanders on the platform immediately prior to being struck by the train. Regardless, he was struck with significant force by the speeding train, and upon impact, a large portion of his body was flung about 100 feet onto the train platform where it struck the backside of the plaintiff, a 58 year old woman.  The plaintiff was knocked to the ground from the force of the blow and sustained injuries to her should, leg, and wrist. The plaintiff sued the estate of the deceased, seeking recovery for his negligence.

The plaintiff alleged the decedent breached a duty to keep a proper lookout for trains, negligently ran into the path of an approaching train, and negligently failed to yield the right-of-way to an approaching train. This negligence caused her physical injuries. There were competing motions for summary judgment regarding proximate cause and the existence of any duty to the plaintiff. Summary judgment was granted for the estate finding there was no duty owed to plaintiff.  The plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Court of Illinois disagreed with the lower court and determined that a bystander on a train platform is a foreseeable plaintiff to a person struck by a train for several reasons. The Illinois court has held that the personal danger posed by stepping in front of a moving train is an “open and obvious danger.” Numerous cases have established that death or great bodily harm is likely to result if a person does not exercise due care near active train tracks. In addition, an Illinois statute requires that all pedestrians shall not enter or remain upon railroad crossings or pedestrian walkways over railroad tracks when given warning of a moving train in the vicinity. Breach of this statute is indicative of a breach of reasonable care.

The deceased’s failure to comply with the statute demonstrated he failed to act with reasonable care for his own safety.  In addition, the Illinois court found the deceased had a duty while engaging in conduct that creates risk to others to exercise reasonable care to avoid causing the physical harm to others. While the trial court in this instance held that the circumstances causing the harm to the plaintiff were “tragically bizarre,” the appellate court held that this was not the proper inquiry. To determine whether this duty exists, the court reviews the foreseeability of causing any harm to another from the person’s conduct. The manner in which the plaintiff is injured is irrelevant, and the court will only review whether there is the potential for harm to the plaintiff to determine whether the plaintiff is a “foreseeable plaintiff.”

In reviewing the facts of this case, the appellate court found that there were no reported cases where a plaintiff injured by a flying body sued the deceased person’s estate. Apparently, all injury by flying dead body cases that existed in the past had resulted in claims of negligence against the railroad or an automobile driver. The court, therefore, relied on traditional duty principles to determine that the plaintiff in this case was a reasonably foreseeable plaintiff.

The court decided that it was reasonably foreseeable that an oncoming train would “strike, kill, and fling” the body of the deceased onto the platform where people were congregating as they waited for the next scheduled commuter train to arrive. Therefore, it was reasonably foreseeable that by failing to act with reasonable care for his own safety, the deceased could reasonably foresee that his actions would cause injury to someone standing in the passenger waiting area 100 feet away. Because this was foreseeable, a duty to the plaintiff did, in fact, exist.
While the facts of this case are indeed tragically bizarre, they do highlight the fact that courts may continue to extend the duty owed to others to exercise care in undertaking dangerous activities. This duty appears to extend beyond simply ensuring a person does not harm another from the actual activity. A duty exists even when a person’s actions in undertaking a dangerous activity result in great personal harm, and put into motion involuntary contact with bystanders caused by the personal injury, such as flying body parts after being struck by a train. This case also extends the duties owed to others for injuries from these activities beyond the traditional defendants that operate dangerous machinery to everyone involved in the dangerous activity.  If courts continue to adopt this reasoning, individuals will have a duty to others to prevent harm that continues even after their death--a person's dead body owes a duty of care to prevent forseeable harm to others. Insurance policies should be examined to make sure there is coverage for injuries caused by flying body parts.  Zokhrabov v. Jeung-Hee Park, No. 1-10-2672, 2011 WL 6823803 (Ill. Ct. App. Dec. 23, 2011).