At the End of Palsgraf, There Is Chaos: An Assessment of Proximate Cause in Light of Chaos Theory
50 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2015
Date Written: 1997
Palsgraf articulated the doctrine of proximate cause, necessary to prove the tort of negligence. Palsgraf needs to be reexamined in light of today's understanding of cause and effect. The case concerned a woman (Mrs. Palsgraf) standing on a train platform who was injured by a roof tile that fell as the result of the vibrations caused by the explosion of another passenger's package. Mrs. Palsgraf sued the railway for negligence and prevailed at the trial court level. The New York Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, however, holding that the railway company's actions were not the proximate cause of Mrs. Palsgraf's injuries.
Modern science recognizes that the railway station constituted a complex dynamic system. Palsgraf was decided in 1928 at a time when understanding of cause and effect in complex dynamics was minimal and steeped in a linear mind- set. Because the understanding of cause and effect in these systems has been significantly advanced by the field of nonlinear dynamics in recent years, the case should be reexamined in this new light. Linear systems have outputs that are proportional to their inputs and are therefore predictable. But linearity inadequately models most of the real world. Nonlinear systems, though not recognized by most as such, are more prevalent than linear systems and have outputs disproportionate to their input. A subset within the group of nonlinear systems are chaotic systems, the main focus of this essay. The title "chaotic" is misleading as these systems still follow discrete physical laws. But it is their sensitivity to initial conditions that makes them unpredictable. What appears as a random result may actually be a strong reaction to immeasurable inputs at the beginning of a sequence of events. The weather is a good example of this principle, termed deterministic chaos. There is no way to isolate and define each initial condition that goes into a weather pattern, but as will be shown, each initial condition may radically affect the resulting systems.
Keywords: Palsgraf, Chaos Theory, Proximate Cause
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