November 10, 2004

A lapel button.

A colleague of mine walked by wearing a big white lapel button with one of those red circles with a slash mark that signify "no." I looked to see what he was saying "no" to -- more politics? -- but it said "proximate cause." He was a Torts prof off to teach a class -- let me guess -- about Palsgraf.

UPDATE: I spoiled my own joke. I've corrected it now. It's "proximate cause," not "probable case," as I'd written initially. Well, you know how we lawprofs are always out to confuse you ....

ANOTHER UPDATE: An emailer writes:
Though I began reading your blog out of interest in the election, your references to your life as a lawprof are intriguing. A case in point is today’s post about proximate cause. I sense there is an entertaining joke there, but since my knowledge of the law is limited to what I can glean from watching “L.A. Law” reruns and the constant Peterson trial coverage on Fox, I can’t get the full measure of enjoyment that those in the know must get.

Let me tell you, proximate cause is hiLARious. Sorry to seem to be withholding the secret info that would make that post a "joke." I mostly just thought it was funny that the button turned out not to be political, but the tortsprof wore the button to be funny, so there still is a question: what's so funny about no proximate cause. Partly, it's the double meaning.

The subject of the class on proximate cause would be about when a person who does something negligent should be liable for an injury that is caused by that act of negligence. In the classic case, Palsgraf, the one case every first year student is sure to study, this happened:
Plaintiff was standing on a platform of defendant's railroad after buying a ticket to go to Rockaway Beach. A train stopped at the station, bound for another place. Two men ran forward to catch it. One of the men reached the platform of the car without mishap, though the train was already moving. The other man, carrying a package, jumped aboard the car, but seemed unsteady as if about to fall. A guard on the car, who had held the door open, reached forward to help him in, and another guard on the platform pushed him from behind. In this act, the package was dislodged, and fell upon the rails. It was a package of small size, about fifteen inches long, and was covered by a newspaper. In fact it contained fireworks, but there was nothing in its appearance to give notice of its contents. The fireworks when they fell exploded. The shock of the explosion threw down some scales at the other end of the platform, many feet away. The scales struck the plaintiff, causing injuries for which she sues.
The question is whether an act -- here, the guard's act -- is the "proximate cause" of the injury, and the class usually proceeds with many hypotheticals designed to make students think about what is proximate cause and what is not. How are you going to know the difference between causation that is proximate and that which is not? Especially on the exam! So the question of when there is "no proximate cause" -- as the button says -- is very important to students.

The double meaning would be that a law student might feel overwhelmed by the seeming difficulty of the subject and want to say "no proximate cause" in the sense of: don't make me study that!

You may note that I said "seeming difficulty." Part of learning law is just getting used to the idea that you've got to draw lines somewhere. You need to learn to live with -- maybe even enjoy -- the feeling that you won't have a way to know exactly where to draw the line in all the hypotheticals and exam questions.

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