Yesterday's featured case involved the question of duty. Sticking with that theme, I thought I'd bring to your attention another duty case, this time in the tort context.
One of the first lessons I learned in Torts class is the notion that foreseeability does not define the scope of the legal duty in tort. For example, if I negligently caused an auto accident such that the highway patrol had to shut down the Long Island Expressway, it is certainly foreseeable that people in the cars behind me might miss a business meeting, fail to deliver a pizza on time, or miss their own wedding. But tort law does not impose a duty on me to avoid those consequences for other people, even though they may result in financial loss. Rather, tort law imposes a duty on me only to avoid negligently causing injury to a person or property. Without personal injury or property damage, the fact that one of the drivers behind me was inconvenienced (or even financially impacted) simply does not give rise to a legal claim.
In Sanders v. Norfolk So. Ry. Co., 2010 WL 4386881 (4th Cir. Nov. 5, 2010) (unpublished per curiam affirmance), the Fourth Circuit was squarely faced with the duty question. (I should note that some of my colleagues were involved in this case.) A train had derailed in a small town, causing a chlorine leak. People within a one-mile radius were under a mandatory temporary evacuation order, and people within a two mile radius were under a temporary "shelter in place" order. (The railroad quickly agreed to a class action settlement for those who were directly impacted.)
But people who lived within a two-to-five mile radius of the crash site wanted a payday, too, so they filed a putative class action suit. The defendant moved to dismiss, the trial court granted the motion, and the Fourth Circuit agreed. The Fourth Circuit explained that:
South Carolina recognizes reasonable limitations on tort liability in negligence actions where the plaintiffs have suffered no personal injury and have no direct relationship with the tortfeasor. . . .
. . . While Appellants may have properly pled that their injuries were foreseeable, foreseeability alone may not give rise to a duty under South Carolina law. . . .
Here, the only injuries alleged by Appellants are those directly related to their non-mandatory evacuation or temporary retreat from their homes. While these harms may have been foreseeable by [the defendant], we agree with the district court that they are too remote to warrant a finding of legal duty.
Id. at *2 (citations omitted).
Similarly, the court affirmed the dismissal of the nuisance claims. Dismissal of the public nuisance claim was proper because the plaintiffs had not alleged that their real or personal property was damaged by the accidental chlorine gas release. And dismissal of the private nuisance claim was proper because the "release was a singular event and did not continuously keep them out of their homes." Id. at *3.
Sanders is a reminder that foreseeability is not the equivalent of duty in tort law, and that the duty concept serves to cut off liability for harms that are simply too remote or attenuated from the challenged conduct.