Saturday, January 21, 2012

A bizarre re-telling of the Palsgraf question: whether a plaintiff can sustain a claim against estate of man who was killed by moving train for injuries suffered when his flying dead body hit her

Last month, the appellate Court of Illinois decided an interesting case that allows us to review the famous Palsgraf v Long Island Railroad decision but that involves much more gruesome facts.  The case is called Zokhrabov v Park and, just like Palsgraf, it involves a train accident.

In Zokhrabov, a young man was trying to cross over railroad tracks when a fast moving train was heading towards him.  For whatever reason, the young man did not get out of the way quickly enough and the train hit him propelling his body into a pedestrian who was struck and injured by the flying body.  The pedestrian sued the deceased man’s estate and the lower court dismissed the claim.  On appeal, however, the decision was reversed and remanded.

One initial question is why would the plaintiff sue the victim of the train accident and not the train company itself.  The answer is simple: because it will be easier for the plaintiff to show that the victim was negligent.  In fact, it appears that the train company was not negligent at all.  So the plaintiff sued the person who was negligent and whose negligence caused her an injury.

The question facing the court, however, is whether the scope of liability should extend to include her injury given the bizarre way in which the accident happened.  For some this is a question of the element of duty; others would call it an issue of proximate cause. 

Either way, when it comes down to it, the case is simple and the court reached the correct conclusion.  The important question is whether the injury is a foreseeable consequence of the risk created by the negligent conduct.  If it can be argued that it is, then the plaintiff has satisfied the element of the cause of action and the case survives the motion to dismiss.

The step by step analysis should be something like this: 

1.  Was the defendant negligent?  You can make a reasonable argument that he was.  For that reason, you have to conclude that reasonable people can disagree and the jury should be the one to decide the issue.

2.  If the conduct was negligent, by definition, it created an unreasonable risk of harm to others.  Given that, then we ask whether the risk of getting hit by a flying body is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the risk created by the defendant's negligent conduct of putting himself in a position to get hit by a fast moving train.  Again, at the very least, reasonable people can disagree and, therefore, the question should go to the jury. 

The opinion is available here.

For more analysis on the case (by Prof. Jonathan Turley) go here.  For other comments on the case go to Abnormal Use and the Chicago Personal Injury Blog.

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