Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Cardozo's opinion in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.' hinges on a stark assertion about rights and wrongs: A plaintiff has no right of action unless she can show "'a wrong' to herself; i.e., a violation of her own right." Cardozo himself made this principle the core of his analysis, yet scholars typically regard it as impenetrable, circular, vacuous, or, as Posner put it, "eloquent bluff." Small wonder, then, that readers typically turn to "reasonable foreseeability" as the essence of the case. Leading scholars treat Palsgraf as a proximate cause case, despite Cardozo's pronouncement that "W[the law of causation, remote or proximate, is thus foreign to the case before us., Though Palsgraf is widely regarded as the most famous case in American tort law, Cardozo's own reasoning in Palsgraf is typically ignored or derided, but not explained.

The facts of Palsgraf may be peculiar, but its core principle is pervasive: For all torts, courts reject a plaintiffs claim when the defendant's conduct, even if a wrong to a third party, was not a wrong to the plaintiff herself. For example, an injured plaintiff can win in fraud only if she was defrauded, in defamation only if she was defamed, in trespass only if her land rights were violated, and so on. Courts reach these results even where the defendant acted tortiously, the plaintiff suffered a real injury, and the plaintiffs injury was reasonably foreseeable. The legal rule upon which these cases rely is that which our scholarly tradition treats so ambivalently in Palsgraf: A plaintiff cannot win unless the defendant's conduct was a wrong relative to her, i.e., unless her right was violated. I shall call this principle the "substantive standing" rule and shall show that it is a fundamental feature of tort law.

Included in

Torts Commons