A Nebraska man has sued Wal-Mart, claiming that it caused his wife’s death. How? Recall the famous poem:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
In the Nebraska case, the widower has filed suit, claiming that a Wal-Mart cashier overfilled a plastic bag with very heavy items (two 42oz cans and 2 lbs. of rice). Because the bag was overfilled, it broke. Because it broke, the cans fell on his wife’s toe. Because the cans fell on her toe, they cut and fractured her toe. Because of the cut and fracture, she developed an incurable infection. Because of the incurable infection, she died.
A sad tale, surely. Courts frequently wrestle with questions of how remote a harm (dying) can be attributed to the negligence (careless bagging) – or, said differently, how proximate a ‘proximate cause’ must be. The most famous case analyzing how proximate a harm must be came from 1928 and involved poor Mrs. Palsgraf (beloved of law students everywhere). In that case, a passenger was getting on a railroad car at the last moment and a railroad guard was helping him up while another guard was pushing him from behind. The passenger dropped the package he was carrying, which turned out to contain fireworks. The fireworks went off when they fell, striking a railroad scale that then toppled on poor Mrs. Palsgraf.
She sued the railroad for her injuries. The court concluded in that case that the injuries to Mrs. Palsgraf were simply too remote from the actions of the railroad guards and didn’t allow her to recover for her injuries. How will courts rule on the Nebraska case? The court will likely look to see if the harm was foreseeable, and will look to public policy to see if liability will be imposed.
It will certainly be a case to watch.