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Legal fame may arise from great accomplishments: See, for example, Earl Warren and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Other names become known for the issues for which they stand, like Miranda and Roe. Still others come to prominence via fortune — or misfortune. Think Palsgraf. The explosion at a Long Island Railroad station that injured Helen Palsgraf not only made her family name a household word — at least in households with lawyers — it also began what some of her descendants call a curse. In the eight decades since the New York Court of Appeals in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad outlined the two competing theories of proximate cause, a branch of the Palsgraf family has been beset by bad luck, serious injuries and losing lawsuits, just like their matriarch, Helen Palsgraf. “It’s a curse, I’m telling you. It’s a Palsgraf Curse,” Barbara Palsgraf, the wife of Helen’s grandson William Jr., said by phone from her home in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “Everyone I know in the family has had an accident and didn’t get what they deserved.” The famous accident occurred at Queens’ Jamaica Station. Though most lawyers know the details of that morning, Aug. 24, 1924, from their law school torts texts, The New York Times account from the following day described the events with florid period detail:
Thirteen men and women, on their way to the Rockaways and other Long Island resorts, were painfully hurt yesterday morning when bombs and fireworks exploded beneath them as they were boarding a Jamaica express train on the Long Island Railroad. When the express train pulled in, the crowd, eager to get seats, surged to the gates, jostling and pushing. In the crowd were three men, each carrying a large package. One of the parcels dropped between the station platform and the train, to the tracks, several feet below. There was a terrific roar, followed by several milder explosions, and a short-lived pyrotechnic display.

Subsequent investigations provided additional details. The authorities determined that the passenger who dropped the package (whose identity was never determined, though he was “probably Italian,” according to the Times) did so after being shoved onto the train by a station agent. The injured included Rose Matkowsky, a 16-year-old from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, whose hair was burned, and Mamie and Mollie Greenfader, a mother and daughter from Park Slope, Brooklyn, who suffered abrasions. And there was the 43-year-old housewife from Queens, Helen Palsgraf. “The shock of the explosion threw down some scales at the other end of the platform,” wrote Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo in his majority opinion for Palsgraf. “The scales struck the plaintiff, causing injuries for which she sues.” Ms. Palsgraf alleged negligence on the part of the railroad agent. A trial court awarded her $6,000 (about $65,000 in today’s dollars), which the Appellate Division, 2nd Department upheld. In what became one of the best-known decisions in torts law, the Court of Appeals — New York state’s highest court — reversed and dismissed the case. THEORY OF CAUSATION Judge Cardozo set forth a theory of duty and proximate causation that became the law of the state and, eventually, the country. The railroad was not liable, he wrote, because the injury had been unforeseeable. “Negligence is not actionable unless it involves the invasion of a legally protected interest or the violation of a right. Proof of the negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do. Negligence is the absence of care, according to the circumstances,” wrote Cardozo. In a dissent to Palsgraf, Judge William S. Andrews laid out the contrary view. Condemning a rule of foreseeability, he argued that it “is the act itself, not the intent of the actor, that is important.” Though Cardozo prevailed by only 4 to 3, his holding became a touchstone of tort law. It has been officially cited, including law review articles, 1,419 times down to last week’s finding by the Appellate Division, 1st Department of potential liability for “second-hand” asbestos in Holdampf v. A.C. & S., 3478. Palsgraf “represents a rejection of the view articulated by Andrews in the dissent,” said Mark Geistfeld, a law professor at New York University. The decision, he said, established that rights and duties run between individuals. “The basic rule of Palsgraf is in the Restatement of Torts,” Geistfeld said. “It’s pretty much a feature of tort law today.” THE ‘CURSE’ Descendants of Ms. Palsgraf say the decision also started the “curse.” Palsgraf lived with her husband, Michael, and three children in Richmond Hills, Queens. On that Sunday morning, she was taking her daughters, Lillian and Elizabeth, to Rockaway Beach to escape the heat. It is the children of Ms. Palsgraf’s other child, William, that tell stories of the curse. William’s oldest son, William Jr., the first of Helen’s 12 grandchildren, was born in 1929, a year after Palsgraf. In 1965, in order to put an antenna on the roof of his Forest Hills home, he rented a ladder from the Continental Hardware Store, on Continental Avenue, in Queens. The rental ladder, he later alleged, was defective and it collapsed. Mr. Palsgraf fell three stories, landing in his driveway, breaking his arm and shattering his wrist. He still cannot “straighten his arm out like a normal person,” said his wife, Barbara. His suit against the manufacturer never made it to trial: The ladder was stolen from the courtroom and the case vanished with the evidence. Ms. Palsgraf thinks the curse struck again when she lost her left thumb in an accident at the Woodhull School in Queens, where she taught arts and crafts, she said. Attempting to move a pingpong table to make room for a Halloween pageant, Ms. Palsgraf caught her thumb in the collapsing table. The injury resulted in three years of operations and a hospital stay of more than six weeks to treat an infection. Eventually, doctors had to amputate. Ms. Palsgraf sued the school and, frustrated by the protracted proceedings, settled for “peanuts,” she said. She remains angry. “The hands are the most important things on your body!” she said. The “curse” may have reached its zenith in the next generation, with her accident-prone son, William III, Ms. Palsgraf said. As a high school freshman in the late 1970s, she said, he often jogged in Forest Hills Gardens, a private subdivision in Queens. One afternoon, he stumbled over a broken curb and broke his ankle. Confined to crutches and unable to continue his daily multi-train commute into Manhattan, Billy had to switch schools. That accident “got sucked under” the curse, too, said Ms. Palsgraf. “And Billy never got a cent.” The family considered pursuing a suit, she said, but were discouraged by attorneys from doing so. William Jr.’s sister, Carol, 65, a retired office manager who lives in Woodhaven, said she does not believe in a curse. She does, however, get hounded by attorneys and judges about her name. “Every time I go to jury duty I get this nonsense,” she said in an interview. If a curse does exist, at least it seems to include a touch of ironic humor. For many years, William Jr. worked as a truck driver for, among others, Petroleum Heat and Power. One night in 1968, he took to the road in the middle of an ice storm, carrying a tanker full of oil for P.H.&P. “I had to go down a hill by the [Long Island Expressway] and the whole hill was ice,” he said in an interview. He made a turn and “the minute I made the turn, I spun around like a cyclone, went over the sidewall and through the fence.” His truck hung over the edge of a cliff, tottering precariously. Only one thing kept the truckload of oil tethered to the land, saving the life of Ms. Palsgraf’s closest living relative and preserving the family, its name and its curse for at least one more generation: The tanker’s wheels were caught on a track for, of all things, the Long Island Railroad. Editor’s note: The text of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad can be found at www.nylj.com.

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