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Five Classic Cases
Fascinating legal cases such as Hawkins v. McGee are known to lawyers across the land—and to almost nobody else.
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
Packages that explode when dropped, cows that unexpectedly turn fertile, hands that sprout hair, and little boys who pull chairs out from under old ladies are the foundation of the American legal profession. Every student in every law school in the land learns his or her trade by studying a body of true cases that often seem the stuff of Rube Goldberg drawings but that are invaluable for vividly illustrating basic elements of the law.
Case study was invented by Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of the Harvard Law School, in 1870. Previously, law had been taught mainly through lectures; since then, students have learned fundamental principles through real applications, exploring judges’ decisions and opinions in tough classroom question-and-answer sessions. The cases they study do not, by and large, involve events of any historical importance; rather, they are cases that, according to the authors of one classic casebook, are “vivid, teachable and provocative.” They go right to the heart of frequently applied principles of law, they contain interesting treatments of these points as brought out in judges’ opinions, and, of equal importance, they are memorable. In the words of Charles Rembar, a practicing attorney who wrote The Law of the Land and The End of Obscenity, professors choose cases that will “keep the students awake.”
What follow are five such cases, startling classics that are known to lawyers and law students all across the land—and to almost nobody else.
Hiram Walker & Sons contracted to sell a supposedly infertile Black Angus named Rose 2d of Aberlone to T. C. Sherwood. Rose then became pregnant. Because a fertile cow is worth vastly more than a barren one, Walker refused to deliver her. Sherwood sued for Rose and won. Walker appealed and lost and then appealed again, to the Michigan Supreme Court. The court granted a new trial.
In all these cases, the basic text for study is an appellate court’s ruling—specifically, the court’s discussion, in its written opinion, of how a lower court did or did not correctly apply the law. Here the lower courts erred by failing to observe the principle that if both parties to a contract have been under a misapprehension about a fact that dramatically affects the contract’s value—such as Rose’s fecundity—the contract can be held to be void. However, as students usually learn while discussing this case, if just one side knows a crucial fact, the law is not so simple. The retrial in this case, taking the mutual mistake into account, let Walker keep Rose.
The late Brainerd Currie, a professor at Duke University School of Law, memorialized the case in a somber poem, after Coleridge’s “Christabel,” that is often quoted in casebooks. It reads, in part: “A dismal specter haunts this wake—/ The law of mutual mistake;/ And even the reluctant drone/ Must cope with Rose of Aberlone./ She rules the cases, she stalks the page/ Even in this atomic age. … / That she will turn up in some set of facts is/ Almost as certain as death and taxes:/ For students of law must still atone/ For the shame of Rose of Aberlone.”
A man ran for a train as it left the station. Two guards pulled and pushed him aboard. In the confusion, he dropped a package he was carrying. Containing fireworks, the package exploded. The shock knocked down some scales at the other end of the platform, and they injured Mrs. Palsgraf. Mrs. Palsgraf sued the railroad for negligence and won; the railroad appealed. On appeal, the judgment was reversed and Mrs. Palsgraf’s complaint was dismissed.
This provides a suitably cloudy introduction to the legal gray area of “proximate cause.” Theoretically, every negligent act can give rise to an infinite string of consequences, but it would be both unfair and impossible to try to compensate everyone even remotely wronged. Proximate cause—one of many legal concepts that are simply matters of degree—is the sometimes vague notion that an injury must have been the “proximate” result of a negligent act to be grounds for redress.
Benjamin Cardozo, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, used the case to try to create a new method for determining proximate cause. In his majority opinion he argued that liability extended to whomever the wrongdoer had a duty to protect, and that in pushing a man onto a moving train—however negligently —the conductors had no duty to think of Mrs. Palsgraf across the platform. The dissenting opinion embodies the view still prevalent today: If you unreasonably endanger people, you are liable for all proximate consequences regardless of any notion of duty. And Rembar points out, “Cardozo’s test is still a matter of degree.”
George Hawkins’s right hand was severely scarred from burns. Dr. Edward McGee offered to perform a skin graft, which he said would give Hawkins a “hundred percent perfect hand.” After the operation, the skin, which had been taken from Hawkins’s chest, grew “matted” hair. Hawkins sued McGee for breach of contract and won; McGee succeeded in having the award reduced. Then Hawkins appealed. On appeal, a new trial was ordered.