Category: History of Law


On Elevators, Frightened Horses, and Disappearing Types of Tort Claims

The other day, a woman was killed in a horrific elevator accident in New York City.  

Happily, this is a rare occurrence, though one that’s well-represented in Torts casebooks.  Over at Point of Law, Ted Frank has blogged before about the dwindling number of accidents that involve elevators.  In his post, Ted cites to a 1926 New York Times newspaper article, which I subsequently dug up, that relates 87 deaths connected to elevators and elevator shafts in 1925—just in the city of New York!  Somewhat comfortingly, however, only 36 of these people were crushed by elevators.  Forty-seven fell into elevator shafts (which is still somewhat traumatic to me, especially after I watched this scene as an impressionable youth), three were killed when elevators fell, and one “fell through a dumbwaiter” (eep).

I don’t know how many of these elevator-related accidents led to tort suits.  A quick online search, however, suggests that these cases were once pretty common.  These suits appear to have percolated in the 1870s and 1880s, and developed into a well-recognized type of case by the 1890s or the early 1900s, at the latest.

This development paralleled the construction of the first wave of high-rise structures in American cities (the first modern “skyscraper,” the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, was built in 1884).   I don’t know if  there’s a causal connection between the proliferation of high-rises and the development of the elevator-suit case type (after all, any multistory building could claim an elevator, and lots of early cases involved apartment buildings and department stores that clearly were not skyscrapers), but it bears mentioning that Illinois, home of many early skyscrapers, produced a large number of appellate decisions involving elevators during this time period; perhaps appellate courts with discretionary jurisdiction in that state decided that these cases were worth hearing, if only because the construction of more high-rise buildings would mean more elevators, and a greater need for appellate precedent to guide the cases that would result from accidents involving these devices.

I’ll go into a little more detail about the disappearance of tort subspecies like the falling-elevator cases, after the jump.

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A Century and a Quarter of Law School Examinations

Earlier this year, Harvard Law School posted examinations given at the institution between 1871 and 1995. I spent a little time the other day skimming through them, concentrating on examinations given in Torts and Constitutional Law courses.

With Torts, as with other classes, the most obvious change involved the gradual lengthening of exam questions. Gone are the days when a professor could ask, “What is an assault? How does it differ from a battery?,” questions posed on this 1871 Torts exam. But more than the questions have changed; one also can detect many shifts in the substantive law by reviewing the tests.

For example, old Torts exams concentrated upon the intentional torts. Of the 14 questions on the 1871 examination, four involved trespass; two, defamation; and there were also questions on nuisance, conversion, assault and battery, false imprisonment, fraud, and malicious prosecution. Modern tests, as one would expect, are much more concerned with the nuances of negligence doctrine.

The exams also illustrate how a given issue may “move” from one area of law to another, as time passes and new fields emerge. Some questions in early Torts exams would today seem much more at home in a Criminal Procedure or Antitrust final. (Consider, for instance, the 1873-1874 Torts question, “When can an officer arrest without a warrant, and when can a private person arrest without a warrant?”)

Trends aside, some of the most interesting questions in old exams were wholly topical at the time they were written. Professor James Thayer’s Constitutional Law examinations, in particular, skewed toward current events. Take, for example, this question, from an examination given during the 1881–82 academic year: “Could Guiteau have waived a jury? Would it make any difference if we suppose a statute purporting to authorize this? Why?” Guiteau, of course, was the (likely deranged) assassin of President James Garfield.

Or this, from Thayer’s 1896–97 examination (with my apologies for the incorporated language, which was, of course, a product of the time): “The State of X forbids the carrying of negroes or other colored persons and whites as passengers in the same car on any railroad in the State. In returning from a “Parliament of Religions” at Chicago, a Hindoo, a Moor, an Ethiopian and Mr. Booker Washington had taken passage from Chicago on a through train, making no separation of passengers, to a point requiring them to pass through State X. On reaching the line of that State, these travelers were all required to shift into a car for negroes. They refuse to go and were ejected from the train. In an action for assault against the conductor the question is raised of the constitutionality of the State law. How should the question be decided? Why?”

Sound somewhat familiar?  Personally, I find this question interesting mostly because Thayer tees up the issue by way of an assault action. But then, I teach Torts.


Law Professors, Petitions and Kristallnacht

Not long ago, I was asked to sign a petition, circulating among law professors, that condemns the recent pepper-spraying of protesters at the University of California-Davis. This invitation rekindled my interest in the origins of these petitions.

Law professors qua law professors have become engaged in topical public controversies since the early 1900s. Some law professors spoke out about the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, and many professors took well-publicized positions on Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing plan. I am unfamiliar with any widely distributed petition as to either event, however. (Although the AALS did initiate, only to abandon, a poll of law faculties designed to gauge their support or opposition to FDR’s plan.)

The first petition I have found that specifically requested the support of American law faculties circulated almost exactly 73 years ago, in early December 1938. This petition was prepared and distributed by telegram shortly after the Kristallnacht pogroms, and read as follows:

Faculty of Law [Institution, Location]

The Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam invites you kindly to inform them by telegram before December ten whether your Faculty of Law would be willing to second the following resolution. The invitation being wired today to all Faculties of Law in the British Empire, United States of America, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland. The Faculties of Law of the Universities mentioned below noting with sorrow and dismay that in some countries innumerable people are being persecuted and tormented on account of their faith, race or political convictions and that particularly in the so called Concentration Camps innocent people are without legal procedure subjected to inhuman treatment considering that the basic principles of justice are thus insufferably violated voice their protest against this violation in view of their duty to uphold the principles of justice and the rights of man appeal to the conscience of mankind to support them in this protest and decide to publish this resolution and to communicate it to their respective governments.

The telegram, which on its face requested the support of each contacted institution (as opposed to the endorsement of individual professors) met with a range of responses. Some American law faculties (including those at Yale, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Colorado) signed on to the petition. At Harvard, it was agreed that individual professors could endorse the petition, if they so chose, but that no such backing would come from the general faculty, speaking as a whole and for the institution generally.

Today, it’s assumed that individual professors, as opposed to the institutions where they work, represent the proper signatories of a petition such at the one circulated by the University of Amsterdam law faculty. Were assumptions different, one presumes that there would be a lot fewer petitions in circulation. Plus faculty meetings would become much longer.


Summers v. Tice: The Rest of the Story

Most law students encounter Summers v. Tice in their introductory Torts courses. If you are (or were) among these students, you probably recall the basic facts: two negligent hunters, two simultaneous (or nearly so) shotgun discharges, one injured companion (shot in the right eye [necessitating its removal] and upper lip), only one culprit, but no way for the plaintiff to tell who shot him. Given these circumstances, the Summers court flipped the burden to each of the two defendants to exonerate himself, rather than allowing the plaintiff to founder on the shoals of but-for causation and the preponderance standard of proof.

The California Supreme Court’s opinion in Summers is pretty short, and I’ve long been curious about the defenses that the defendants (Harold Tice and Ernest Simonson) raised in this case. So I went to the California State Archives a while back and read through the case file.

An interesting story emerged. Whereas Simonson did not put on a very aggressive defense at trial, Tice did. Simonson conceded that both he and Tice had fired shots that could have caused Summers’ injury. Tice, by contrast, testified that Simonson, and Simonson alone, had shot the plaintiff, and that in fact Tice had not fired his gun for minutes prior to the fateful blast. To the same effect, Tice produced two deputy sheriffs as witnesses. These men testified that when they interviewed Simonson shortly after the accident, Simonson had told them that he was “the one” who had fired the shot (though on cross-examination, one of the deputies hedged a bit on this point).

Moreover, Tice argued that but for the plaintiff’s own negligence, he could have identified his assailant.  Specifically, Tice testified that he had been using No. 6 shot, whereas Simonson had been using No. 7½ shot. The two pellets are of slightly different size, and capable of distinction.  Summers himself testified that, although the shot had been given to him after its removal, he could not find it when he looked for the pellets at his home.  These facts, if accepted, place a very different spin on the case. One could no longer say that the defendants were in a better position than the plaintiff was to identify who fired the injurious shot, which of course was a key ingredient to the Summers decision.

Unfortunately for Tice, he apparently did not strike the trial judge (it was a bench trial) as a particularly persuasive witness. The judge made findings of fact that “the defendants, and each of them, were guilty of gross negligence in firing a gun in the general direction of the plaintiff”; that Tice’s testimony that he had not fired his gun for minutes prior to the accident was untrue; and that both defendants were using No. 7½ shot.

These findings of fact paved the way for the California Supreme Court’s decision above, following a short-lived reversal by the Court of Appeal.

The lesson, if there is one: Credibility matters.

Summers v. Tice, kind of


“Mad Men” Meets Prosser?

I recently visited the American Law Institute archives, maintained by the University of Pennsylvania. There, I dove into the ALI records that relate to the development the Restatement (Second) of Torts. The documents I saw reveal a great deal about the creation of this treatise, and the atmosphere in which it was prepared.

For example, have you ever wondered what the scholars responsible for the Restatement drank, when they met back in the 1950s? Me neither, but I was nevertheless impressed by this beverage menu for a 1956 meeting of the Second Restatement’s advisory committee. If nothing else, it establishes that the committee had the good sense to repair to an establishment that offered both manhattans and martinis by the gallon.

But, one might think, the fact that these drinks were available at the meeting doesn’t mean that they were consumed there. Well, before taking a position on this question, it might be wise to review this schedule for the session, which indicates that drinks were to be served before lunch, at lunch, and at the close of each day’s discussions.

(Images courtesy the University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center, American Law Institute Archives [Restatement (Second) Category; Restatement (Second) Torts Record Group, Box 25, File Folder 25-2])


Leo, J. Edgar, and Ruth

Hoover or DiCaprio?

Clint Eastwood’s biopic of J. Edgar Hoover opens nationwide tomorrow.  The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis liked it, and liked Leonardo DiCaprio in it.  So, if you can’t wait until the April release of Titanic 3D to get your Leo fix, this is your weekend.  Of course, J. Edgar is no Jack Dawson.  So you may need another reason to see the film.

Here’s one.  According to the Times review, the film begins with a voiceover by the title character: “Communism is not a political party — it is a disease.”  Strong words, but strongly felt by many back then (and a few even now).  And that’s a point worth remembering today as we continue to fight the sadly named “GWOT” — the Global War on Terror. 

Consider the year 1952, the midpoint of Hoover’s reign.  The Soviet Union had successfully tested three atomic bombs.  The Korean War was entering its third year, with hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties.  President Truman’s proclamation of a national emergency to fight the “world conquest by communist imperialism” led Congress to pass the Emergency Powers Continuation Act, extending the statutory duration of a wide variety of exceptional presidential powers.  Senator Joseph McCarthy had discovered communists infiltrating the United States Government.

Of course, Hoover wasn’t alone fighting communists.  Besides politicians like McCarthy, Hoover’s contemporary for much of his career was Ruth B. Shipley, the Chief of the State Department’s Passport Office.  (As it happens, Ruth’s older brother, A. Bruce Bielaski, preceded Hoover as the Director of the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI.)  As I detail in a recent article in the Connecticut Law Review based on materials from the National Archives, Shipley controlled travel then with paper files and miles of file cabinets, but her method resonates with how we control travel today, using computerized terrorist watchlists.  Mrs. Shipley took second to no one in her zeal to keep communists and other subversives grounded.

Ruth B. Shipley, not Kate Winslet

In my forthcoming book, Mrs. Shipley’s Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watchlists (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2012), I argue that Mrs. Shipley’s approach was just an analogue version of the digital No Fly List used today.  The legal and policy premises are exactly the same: some people are too dangerous to travel, but for various reasons can’t be charged with a crime or otherwise detained.  (The No Fly List is just one of many watchlists; for example, there is one for maritime travel, too.)  It is up to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center to craft the lists that contain their names, just as Mrs. Shipley’s Passport Office red-flagged (ironically enough) the passport applications of Americans deemed too dangerous to travel.  Your chance of obtaining redress against this system for claims of mistake or misjudgment are as slim today as they were back then, also for many of the same reasons.

A recurring criticism of my argument is that this historical analogy doesn’t work.  I’ll revisit the issue later this month (I’m about to fly — FBI-permitting — to the University of Connecticut School of Law to present my case there).  But for now, as a simple test, ask yourself whether the words of one of the country’s most successful Supreme Court lawyers describe your (and Leo’s) world or the world of Ruth and J. Edgar:

“In short, several officials gather secretly behind closed doors, peruse secret intelligence reports and purport to arrive at a fair judgment affecting not only the citizen’s right to travel but also his reputation and possibly his livelihood and financial well-being.”

The year was 1952.  The source is Eugene Gressman, The Undue Process of Passports, 127 New Republic 13, 14 (Sept. 8, 1952).


The meaning of the Three-Fifths Clause

The ConstitutionIt’s very common to hear progressive writers criticize the racial inequality in the Constitution. One common such criticism invokes the Three-Fifths Clause — that is, writers criticize the Constitution as a document which unjustly labels slaves as merely “three-fifths of a person.” This sort of statement suggests that the Three-Fifths Clause created some sort of legally diminished status for Blacks, perhaps granting them only three-fifths of others’ rights or protections.

The idea that the Constitution is problematic because it labels slaves “three-fifths of a person” comes up frequently in news stories and online conversations. For instance, the New York Times discussion earlier this year about House members reading the Constitution noted that, “Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person.”

This sort of framing, while common, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the Three-Fifths Clause and of what the Constitution does and does not say about race. Read More


What is a treaty? Is that the right question?

(Thanks to Danielle and the Co-Op crowed for letting me stick around a bit longer.)

I am interested in how we should think about treaties.  More specifically, I am interested in different ways we might think about treaties, and why different ways might be appropriate in different circumstances.  At one extreme we might think of treaties as establishing sacred duties, as being based on oaths with deep religious implications.  (Jeremy Waldon has a very interesting discussion of the history of this idea in his recent Charles E. Test lectures, “A Religious View of the Foundations of International Law”.)  I think that there’s a case to be made that supposed principle of international law (or of natural law, depending on one’s account), pacta sunt servanda, depends on this understanding, though I won’t try to make that case here.  (If so, this would be interesting in light of fact that Hans Kelsen at one point held, I believe, pacta sunt servanda to be the “basic norm” of international law, though he later abandoned this.) Read More


John Bingham on the Promise of America

I haven’t done a Bingham post lately (I’m up to 1850 in the biography, when he was a thirty-five year old lawyer still in private practice). One early clue about Bingham’s constitutional thinking is in a speech he gave at his alma mater, Franklin College, in 1851. For those of you who are Lincoln fans, it’s the equivalent of “Honest Abe’s” 1838 Lyceum Address. Anyway, here is a quote that I love from that speech:

“When the vital principle of our government, the equality of the human race, shall be fully realized, when every fetter within our borders shall be broken, where the holy Temple of Freedom, the foundations of which our fathers laid amidst prayers, and sacrifices, and battles and tears, shall be complete, lifting its head-stone of beauty above the towers of watch and war, then conscious of duty performed, and a noble mission fulfilled, we may call to the down-trodden and oppressed of all lands–come.”



Standards of Redemption-Not Hero Worship

Redemption of founding principles, as I read Jack Balkin’s book, Constitutional Redemption, is not nostalgic naivete for some supposed heroic period of American history. Rather it is “fidelity to original semantic meaning” of the constitutional text that Professor Balkin has in mind by “originalism.” Accordingly, the significance of even intensely progressive clauses of the Constitution, like the Equal Protect Clause, is not predicated on their significance to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment–for whom, as Balkin reminds us, women’s rights and anti-miscegenation laws were likely not within its framework–but on the combined assessment of individuals, social groups, politicians, and judges.

Professor Graber, in his post from August 2, 2011 at 19:43 is undoubtedly correct that constitutional storytelling can be manipulated to dress a narrow political point of view in the benighted raiments of antiquity. I nevertheless believe that accuracy in storytelling is important for portraying principles, trends, rulings, and contextual facts about America’s trajectory as a nation and Americans’ trajectory as a people.

Take as an example the question of Abraham Lincoln’s redemptive image, Father Abraham or Honest Abe as some called him. It is woefully true that this great figure he supported colonization into the early period of his presidency before abandoning the plan by January 1, 1863. But an immediatist abolitionist could not have been elected to the presidency in 1860. The general attitude even in the North was for ending the flow of slavery to the western territories but leaving southern states unrestrained in their slave regulations. To take one demonstrative example of the lack of popular support for abolitionism in the North: In December 1860, when Lincoln had already won the presidency, a mob tried to attack radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips after he gave a speech at the Negro Baptist church on Joy Street. Unable to get at its prey, the mob attacked black citizens and smashed house windows in the black section of the city. In such an atmosphere, neither Phillips nor William Lloyd Garrison–much less Susan B. Anthony or Charles Sumner–had a chance in the relatively liberal state of Massachusetts, where Lincoln received 62.9% of the state vote with Stephen Douglas coming a distant second with 20.3%. And if Douglas had won the presidency, there’s no guessing how much longer slavery would have been legal in the United States and how far northwest it might have spread. My point is that just as originalism’s claim to identifying the past through modern lenses is wrong so too is anachronizing contemporary standards to past events. The redemptive value of heros must be judge within the context of their own times.

One of Graber’s important points is that it’s one thing to praise a redemptive figure like Lincoln in general, and it’s easy to get support for such a view, but quite another thing when we begin to question how this moderate liberal would have addressed problems like redistribution or affirmative action: That is to say, the more detail the more nuance, and that’s generally true of history.

To be honest, I do not know for sure how Lincoln would have acted to the issue of affirmative action, although I am sure it would not have been in accordance with contemporary standards. What is certain is that he provided for the security of contraband during the Civil War and at the end of his life spoke about granting black veteran soldiers the right to vote. That was wholly inadequate to deal with all the facets of slavery and racism, but we should judge Lincoln according to his own day and age. The great orator and one time slave, Frederick Douglass, also rejected affirmative action in 1865, when he told the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery society to “Do nothing with us [blacks], for us, or by us as a particular class.” Douglass renounced that position after he saw the Souther recalcitrance with Reconstruction, its Black Codes, and Ku Kluxers. And we might imagine that had Lincoln lived to witness these injustices he too would have realized, just as did Douglass, that without the continued support of federal agencies like the Freedmen’s Bureau, blacks stood no chance at achieving real equality, neither in the South nor the North. It was, after all, Lincoln who signed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act into law.

As for redistribution, it is true that Lincoln did not support such an entitlement. That failure to advance justice on that score, however, should be attributed to Congress rather than Lincoln. Almost no one in the Republican or Democratic parties supported Representatives Thaddeus Stevens’s or George Julian’s land distribution plans. In retrospect, the country committed a grave wrong by preferring reunion to reparations, but Lincoln did not stand alone in such a tendency. Judged according to his own time, I believe Lincoln made positive advances in the direction of racial justice. That does not make him a messianic hero but a flawed one who made very positive strides to redeem the equality message of the Declaration of Independence.

The possibility of constitutional redemption is not anchored in Lincoln–nor other civil rights movers like Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson–but in the principles and standards to which Balkin draws attention. The existence of neutral clauses in America’s founding documents, to which I drew attention earlier, provides the necessary opening for disempowered groups to demand the country to come to terms with its injustices, not on the basis of an abstract philosophy but a written creed. This is why I disagree with Rogers Smith’s ascriptive understanding of American history. While Smith is correct that “successful American political actors have not been pure liberals, democratic republicans, or ascriptive Americanists, but have instead combined politically potent elements of all three views.” I believe that he is mistaken that “American liberal democracy is not the ‘core’ meaning” of United States national purpose.

My reasoning is similar Balkin’s because I think he is correct that among other aspirational provisions to the Constitution, the Preamble “sets a purpose that has never been fully achieved but is our duty to achieve.” Aspirationalism, in Balkin’s sense, is seeing “the possibilities and the resources in the Constitution and in the constitutional tradition” and recognizing “that developing and realizing these possibilities and resources in history is perhaps the Constitution’s most basic command.” But, unlike Balkin, I think that the existence and normative value of these aspirations comes not merely from a social group’s ability to put them “on the table” of politics or into positive law, but the existence of innate human rights (e.g. the right to privacy, travel, and dignity) that the government lacks the power to infringe upon absent a compelling state reason.

The Reconstructed Constitution and the Declaration of Independence contain ideals for equality that a truly ascriptive system, like Nazi Germany, simply does not. There is nothing comparable to the overtly racist Nuremberg Laws in America’s founding documents. What we have, rather, is a country with far too many failures–in matters of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and immigration, to name just those that come to mind–but those failures were violations of the standards, which Balkin sees as essential for redemption, not manifestations of them. The differentiation between reality and ideals allowed workers’ parties, abolitionists, feminists, and disabilities rights groups to have faith in the founding documents even as they condemned the nation for failing to live up to them.

On another point Graber raises in his post about Lincoln’s appointees to the Supreme Court, I want to commend him for bringing Chief Justice Salmon Chase’s service to mind. I think it important to also speak about Justice Noah Swayne as a visionary hero of the original principles.

Lincoln nominated him to the Court in 1862. Swayne did in fact care deeply about the plight of blacks in America. He espoused abolitionism even before the Civil War, at one time he and his wife freed slaves they received by marriage. As an attorney, Swayne had even represented fugitive slaves. His political views were closely tied to anti-slavery sentiments. He had joined the Republican party in response to the 1850 controversy about the Fugitive Slave Law.

It was Swayne who wrote the earliest federal opinion on the Thirteenth Amendment as a designated district court justice. In United States v. Rhodes, he found Congress’s decision to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was in accordance with “the spirit in which the [Thirteenth] amendment is to be interpreted.” Without the Act’s provision granting blacks the same right to testify as any white citizen “simple abolition, would have been a phantom of delusion.” Even more powerfully, his often overlooked dissent to the Slaughterhouse Cases, spoke of the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendment’s as “a new departure, and mark an important epoch in the constitutional history of the country” which were in accord with (or we may say redeemed) “the fundamental principles of the social compact.” After his retirement, Swayne commended Justice Harlan for his dissent in the Civil Rights Cases. “In my judgement,” Swayne wrote “it is one of the great, indeed one of the greatest, opinions of the Court does you infinite honor, is all that could be desired, and will make a profound and lasting impression upon the Country” With this ideology, I think we can fairly say that Swayne was a redemptive hero of Reconstruction.