My grandfather recently passed away. It wasn’t Covid; not directly at least. A lifetime of kidney problems and other assorted ailments weren’t helped by the pandemic-induced lock-down. Rather than go out to eat or graze at the local grocery store buffet, as he normally would, he dined on pre-cooked meals and unsurprisingly his health suffered for it. So no, Covid didn’t kill him, but it certainly helped. In legal-speak it was more of a proximate cause.
In any law school tort class, students learn about proximate cause as it relates to negligence. One case, which is widely cited, is Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad. In this slice of history, a remarkable and tragic chain of events took place. The plaintiff, Mrs. Palsgraf, waited for her train, at the railroad’s train station. As she waited, an employee of the train company unknowingly helped two men load explosives onto a different train. The explosives detonated, and had one of the two men been injured by that explosion this case would almost assuredly be lost to the sands of time, a simple case of negligence with a simple resolution. Instead, in the hubbub that ensued, a large scale Mrs. Palsgraf was standing near struck and injured her. The exact manner in which the scale injured her isn’t mentioned in the opinion itself.
Every law student learns about this case and its meaning. The legal rules and principles of law that the majority and dissenting opinions announced are followed to this day. But the decision doesn’t spill any ink about Mrs. Palsgraf. A terse statement of facts accompanies the majority opinion, in which Mrs. Palsgraf isn’t even mentioned by name. She is simply “Plaintiff.” Thus, she is reduced to something less than human. I thought of this case as my grandfather lay in hospice, near the end of his life. Continue reading “Palsgraf and Humanity in the Age of Covid”