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5 Classic Torts Cases Made Simple for 1Ls

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

Welcome to 1L torts class! In case you're wondering, "tort" is an Old French word meaning "very lengthy negligence fact pattern." You'll spend the next year reading many cases about old ladies falling down, whether it's at their own homes, on a railroad platform, or in a slippery parking lot.

To get you in the mood, here are five "classic" torts cases that you're going to be seeing real soon:

Going solo out of school? Spend more time developing practice skills and leave the marketing work for the experts.

1. Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. (1928).

Poor Mrs. Palsgraf was injured by a falling set of scales, the result of a box of fireworks that fell onto the railroad tracks and exploded. The box fell only after a passenger, who was being shoved into a crowded train car by a guard, dropped them. Judge Benjamin Cardozo's opinion created the "foreseeability" test for negligence, recognizing that a chain of actions had to be cut off somewhere. Cardozo chose "foreseeability."

2. Summers v. Tice (1948).

Three men go hunting: two behind and one in front, forming a triangle. The two behind see a quail. They shoot. The man in front gets hit with bird shot. Which of the two men behind is at fault? Either or both, said the California Supreme Court. If the plaintiff can't figure out which defendant specifically caused his injury, then as long as he can show that both defendants were negligent, the plaintiff can recover against each of them or both of them, and it's up to the defendants to sort out their own liability between them. Summers has become more important over the years in pharmaceutical liability cases.

3. MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. (1916).

Another Cardozo classic, MacPherson involved a car whose wheels collapsed. Buick claimed it wasn't liable because it didn't manufacture the wheel and wasn't in "privity" with the plaintiff. That's nonsense, said Cardozo: Buick's responsibility to make a safe car extended to making sure that the parts it used were safe as well. A plaintiff's recovery can't be foreclosed just because he didn't have a contract directly with the party that made the faulty part.

4. Garratt v. Dailey (1955).

An adorable 5-year-old boy pulls a chair out from under an old lady just as she's about to sit down. Naturally, she's injured. Did he act intentionally? Yes, said the Supreme Court of Washington in this important 1955 decision establishing that acting with "substantial certainty" of resultant harm is enough to show intent.

5. United States v. Carroll Towing Co. (1947).

Writing with his famous opacity, Judge Learned Hand first applied a simple cost-benefit analysis (the "Hand Formula") to this case about a bunch of barges that brook free from their moorings, hitting another barge and sinking it. The Second Circuit found Carroll Towing, which had secured the mooring lines, had not met its standard of care because the cost of potential damage, multiplied by the probability of damage, was greater than the expense to take adequate precautions (B < CP). Cost-benefit analysis is one the foundations of the Law and Economics school of thought.

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