For non-legals, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad is a famous tort law case all law students read involving a bizarre accident at a train station, where the court ruled that a tort defendant owes a legal duty to act with reasonable care to another only if the other is a reasonably foreseeable victim of the defendant’s conduct. More Lawhaha.com posts involving Palsgraf are here, here, here, and here.
A national Greek fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, apparently held a “house party” at their frat house at a West Virginia university. The complaint alleges that many of the participants consumed intoxicating beverages. No surprise so far. But one of the guests surprised at least one person (the plaintiff, allegedly) when he decided to light up–literally–the party by shooting bottle rockets from … er, I’d rather let the Complaint explain it:
Warning: Allegations are Disgusting
8. Defendant Hughes was highly intoxicated on this date and time, and decided in his drunken stupor that it would be a good idea to shoot bottle rockets out of his anus on the ATO deck, located on the back of the ATO house.
9. Upon information and belief, there were several other ATO fraternity members on the deck at the time of this incident, including one or more officers of the fraternity. Plaintiff and his girlfriend were also present on the ATO deck.
10. Defendant Hughes placed a bottle rocket in his anus, ignited the fuse, but instead of launching, the bottle rocket blew up in Defendant’s rectum, and this startled plaintiff and caused him to jump back, at which time he fell off of the ATO deck, and he became lodged between the deck and an air conditioner unit adjacent to the deck.
11. There was no railing on said deck at the time of the incident. Upon information and belief, the lack of a railing had existed for at least several months, if not years, before the incident. Upon further information and belief, the deck never had a railing when it was installed, or any time thereafter. The subject deck was approximately 3-4 feet high.
12. The subject deck was in the exclusive custody, maintenance and control of the ATO fraternity at all times relevant hereto.
Here’s your Palsgraf test: Was the plaintiff within the zone of foreseeable danger of the bottle rocket-defendant’s alleged conduct? Probably, although perhaps with some contributory negligence thrown in. Assuming the plaintiff was standing close by he could have been injured in any number of ways from someone setting off fireworks in such a dangerous, uncontrolled manner.
The more interesting question is the fraterity’s liability. Was it foreseeable to the fraternity that an intoxicated fraternity member would ignite fireworks in such a bizarre manner and cause a startled bystander to fall off the deck? Probably not, but it is foreseeable that during social or other gatherings on a deck with no railing (which the complaint alleges violated building codes, likely making it negligence per se) someone would fall off it. Generally speaking, the precise manner in which the harm occurred need not be foreseeable so long as the same general kind of harm was foreseeable. The injury that occurred–falling off the deck-is the risk that makes it negligent to not have a railing on a raised deck.
Just an off-the-cuff analysis of the facts as alleged. As always, it will come down to the facts as proved–or, more likely, to a settlement.
—Complaint, Helmburg v. Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity, Case No. 12-C-57, Circuit Ct., Cabell County, West Va., filed Jan. 23, 2012.