This past summer, I spent a few weeks down at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, which houses Los Angeles County’s court records for the years 1850 to 1900. There, I perused the Los Angeles District Court’s civil case files for the 1850-1859 time frame. (The district court of that era functioned as a state superior court does today.) I wanted to see what, if any, personal-injury actions were filed during that span—the Paleozoic Era of tort law—in what was (at the time) a very small, somewhat sleepy community.
The unsurprising answer: There weren’t a whole lot of personal-injury cases back then, at least in the district court. Out of the hundreds of case files that I reviewed, I didn’t come across even a single personal-injury case that sounded in negligence; there were four such cases that involved batteries or assaults. Debt-collection actions provided the vast majority of the district court’s docket. Other recurring case types included petitions for divorce; personal-service and other contract disputes; efforts (for naught) to recover on gambling debts; suits over horses, cattle, and timber that today, would sound in conversion or trespass to chattels; and a hodgepodge of other matters.
I wasn’t particularly surprised by the dearth of personal-injury lawsuits sounding in negligence. For one thing, there weren’t a whole lot of negligence lawsuits of any type, anywhere, back then, and there certainly wasn’t a robust infrastructure of caselaw and treatises that might advise small-town attorneys about how they should pursue a personal-injury claim sounding in negligence. Consider, for example, this 1852 New York legal formbook. The book includes draft complaints that allege claims for breach of promise to marry; “for keeping a dog used to bite mankind”; for criminal conversation with one’s wife; for debauching one’s daughter or servant; for assault and battery; and for false imprisonment–but nothing (aside from the vicious-dog suit, perhaps) that indicates how a negligence personal-injury suit should be alleged. Furthermore, 1850s Los Angeles wasn’t exposed to some potent harm-creating agents that would provide grist for the personal-injury mill (and catalyze claim consciousness among potential plaintiffs) in the decades to come. Among them, Los Angeles County wasn’t served by a railroad at the time, it didn’t boast other heavy industry, and it didn’t have the steamboat traffic that, say, Sacramento did.
I’m a torts partisan, but I still found the case files interesting. For one thing, depositions were a heck of a lot shorter back in the days before typewriters; the need to have a local notary transcribe the proceedings by hand apparently placed strict de facto limits on litigants’ ability to wear out a deposition witness with questions. Complaints were short and to the point, too, at least for the most part. Also, I wondered about the consequences of, or possible gamesmanship associated with, some local attorneys’ utterly inscrutable handwriting.
In case any of you are wondering how an 1850 tort case was pled, the following represents the entirety of a complaint (minus the caption and signatures) drafted by local attorneys and filed with the Los Angeles District Court that year:
Your petitioner George W. Robinson a resident citizen of the state and county aforesaid and plaintiff in this suit complaints of Jose Lugo, a citizen of the State of California and of the County of Los Angeles and Defendant in this suit for that whereas heretofore to wit on the 20th day of July AD 1850 in the county of Los Angeles and State of California the said Defendant with force and arms to wit with pistols [lassoes?] + guns then and there assaulted and violently beat the said plaintiff in his person inflicting upon him the said plaintiff [?] and various wounds and bruises to wit four severe wounds on his head four wounds on his right arm four wounds on the left arm ten wounds on the body ten wounds on the right led ten wounds on the left leg whereby and by reason whereof the said plaintiff was greatly injured suffered much pain and loss of blood was put to great expense in paying physicians to effect a cure of the aforesaid wounds and suffered much loss of time being unable by reason of said wounds to pursue his lawful and necessary business as he otherwise could and would have done and also put him the said plaintiff to much other trouble expense pain and inconvenience by reason of the aforesaid assault and battery, whereby and by reason whereof the plaintiff avers that he has been damnified and hath sustained damage to the amount of ten thousand dollars the said plaintiff further complains and states unto the Court that at the time and place aforesaid the said plaintiff then and there being a free citizen of the State of California and having a free full and perfect right to enjoy his liberty he the said Defendant then and there willfully maliciously and without any just or reasonable cause whatsoever with force and arms and deadly weapons (and without and legal process whatsoever) pursued seized upon and bound with cords the person of the Plaintiff thereby [?] him the said plaintiff of his liberty for a long space of time to wit for the space of three days whereby and by reason of the premises the plaintiff avers he was put to great pain and trouble in body and in mind as well as great inconvenience and loss of time whereby and by reason of the premises he avers that he has been damnified and hath sustain and demands of defendant damage to the amount of twenty thousand dollars and therefore he brings suit.