In my recent column, I discussed Palsgraf v. Long Island RR, one of the most famous tort law cases in the United States. I got a very interesting email from William Manz, a law professor at St. John’s, which I post below. The way law and life interact is fascinating–I’m going to buy his book!
I read with interest your column in Commonweal which mentioned the Palsgraf case. A few years ago, LexisNexis published my book, The Palsgraf Case: Courts, Law & Society in 1920s New York, which treats the case as a historical event and includes the backgrounds of all thirteen judges who heard the case.
Cardozo’s apparent indifference to the situation of Mrs. Palsgraf stands in interesting contrast to that of the trial judge, Burt Jay Humphrey, who denied the railroad’s motion to set aside the verdict as against the weight of the evidence, stating that the decision was a “close call,” but that he would let the verdict stand. Humphrey, the son of an upstate New York farmer, was widely regarded as a kindly person, and it’s highly probable that sympathy for Mrs. Palsgraf played a part in his decision. However, overall there was no general correlation between a judge’s background and his position on the Palsgraf case. For example, Judge O’Brien who sided with Judge Andrews had spent much of his career with the New York City Corporation Counsel’s office, whose duties included defending the City against negligence suits. In contrast, Justice Andrews of the Appellate Division, who sided with the LIRR, came from New Rochelle, a community which had once lost many of its residents in a major train crash caused by a railroad’s negligence.
Finally, while researching the book, I contacted a retired attorney who had once been chief counsel for the Long Island Railroad., who provided useful insights on the practices of the LIRR’s legal department (e.g., if there was any settlement offer made to Mrs. Palsgraf, it would have been minuscule). He was certain that the railroad would never have attempted to collect the costs awarded to it by Cardozo’s decision.
William H. Manz
St. John’s University School of Law