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Philosophy 22B

Walsh v. General Machine Company

Robert Walsh took a job with the General Machine Company, which, among other businesses, owned and operated a number of laundromats in Chicago. Walsh took the job in order to make some extra money for his college tuition. His job was to clean the coin-operated machines. One of the more effective cleansing agents was gasoline and Walsh was using gasoline to clean the machines at one of the laundromats during a cold spell.

The room in which he was working was not very large, about eight by ten feet in area, and there was a gas heater installed at the base of the wall opposite the washers and dryers. This heater was lighted at the time with an open flame.

While Walsh was engaged in his cleaning, a rat emerged from one of the machines. The rat dashed across the room, and sought to seek sanctuary under the heater whereat it overexposed itself and caught fire. At this point the rat, its coat impregnated by flame, decided to return (in haste) to its original hideout. As it jumped into the washer from which it had emerged, its flame impregnated coat ignited the gasolene vapors which (now) permeated the room and there was a huge explosion.

Walsh was severely burned. Several days later he died in hospital. A few days after his funeral, members of Walshıs family sued the General Machine Company.

Is the Company liable in damages for Walshıs injuries and death?

In thinking about your argument, it might be helpful to evaluate the implications for a decision in this case of Hart and Honoreıs analysis of causal chains and Cardozoıs "foreseeability" approach in Palsgraf. Under which analysis would the defendant be liable? Not liable?

You should feel free to expand upon the "facts" of this case as outlined above in order to explore how a change in this or that fact might affect your answer and in an effort to determine which of the various facts in this case are controlling facts.

To imagine, for example, that the room in which Walsh had been working had been much larger and was well ventilated.

Or to imagine that repeated admonitions were given to employees not to use gasolene to clean the machines, but that Walsh himself was not warned.

Or to imagine that Walsh was warned and had disobeyed instructions. If the Company had warned Walsh not to use gasolene, would it be relieved of liability?

Click HERE to read the decision in THE ACTUAL CASE..

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Page last edited: February 1, 2000