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Legal Commentary: Prawfs
Most Screwed Victims in Case Law History - Time to Vote
By Dan Markel, Ethan Leib, Rick Garnett, Matt Bodie, Paul Horwitz , Steve Vladeck, and Orly Lobel
The cases we read in law school present a parade of luckless losers. But who is the most screwed victim in caselaw history?
PrawfsBlawg readers responded in droves to my call for nominations. The comments, some of which were quite passionate, show that casebook editors have succeeded over and over again in giving us cases that have the power to bother us long after we read them.
And now it is time for the readership to vote, crowning one caselaw victim the ?most screwed.?
In choosing finalists, I looked for cases that arguably heeded the right rule, but, in doing so, bestowed a memorable tragedy on an unfortunate and sympathetic litigant. In other words, justice arguably reigned, but not without someone?s unwitting sacrifice. Thus, I did not put Fred Korematsu or Dred Scott on the ballot. Nor did I include rebuffed plaintiffs in ERISA preemption cases, where we tend to be shocked by the harshness of the legal principle itself, not merely its effect in a few cases.
For entirely different reasons, I declined to include criminal cases, especially where the ?caselaw victim? was executed by virtue of a court?s ruling. The word ?screwed? seems too trifling when adverse rulings literally send litigants to their death. I rejected family law cases for similar reasons of disproportionate heaviness.
I also did not allow to enter into my decision any facts about the litigants that are not contained within the cases themselves. Historical notes have certainly illuminated or magnified the tragedy suffered by many litigants in many interesting cases. But since this inquiry is about the cases we teach, I decided the qualifying facts must be found in the opinion written by the court.
So here the finalists. Details of the victims and their sordid cases are below the fold.
- Mrs. Palsgraff from Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. , 248 N.Y. 339 (N.Y. 1928)
- The Peevyhouses from Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co., 1962 OK 267 (Okla. 1962)
- John Moore from Moore v. Regents of the University of California, 51 Cal. 3d 120 (Cal. 1990)
- The Boyds from Boyd v. Racine Currency Exchange, Inc., 56 Ill.2d 95 (Ill. 1973)
HERE?S HOW TO VOTE: Send an e-mail to:
Put only one word in the subject line ? use ?Palsgraf,? ?Peevyhouse,? ?Moore,? or ?Boyd? as the subject line of the e-mail to register your choice.
Feel free to campaign for your favorites in the comments to this post.
WARNING: Any text within voting e-mails will not be read and may be transmitted into deep space without prior notice. Multiple votes from the same e-mail address are subject to disqualification and may subject the sender to recommendation for additional committee-service opportunities at his or her school or employer. Hand delivered entries will be combined with corn-based biodiesel and set on fire.
In probably the most famous case in torts, and perhaps in all of American legal education, railroad passenger Mrs. Palsgraf was injured by a falling a scale, which was toppled by a blast from fireworks dropped on the tracks by an unknown passenger pushed and jostled by an employee of the Long Island Railroad. Mrs. Palsgraf won a verdict at trial, and the LIRR appealed to New York's highest court, where Mrs. Palsgraf lost on a 4-3 split. Judge Cardozo, writing for the majority, held that the railroad owed Mrs. Palsgraf no duty in negligence. The court stripped Mrs. Palsgraf of her jury award and, to top it off, ordered her to pay the costs of the appeal.
from Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co., 1962 OK 267 (Okla. 1962)
Nominated by Andrew Carlon
Seconded by John Anderson
Text of the opinion
Willie and Lucille Peevyhouse allowed Garland Coal & Mining Co. to strip-mine their farm, with the express guarantee in the contract that Garland would perform the remedial work required to restore the landscape - an endeavor costing upwards of $25,000. After Garland had strip-mined the farm, they refused to do the remedial work, and stipulated to this at trial. The Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the proper measure of damages for breach of the contract was the diminution of value of the farm - $5,000 - not the amount that would be required to accomplish what Garland had originally agreed to do.
from Moore v. Regents of the University of California, 51 Cal. 3d 120 (Cal. 1990)
Nominated by JM
Seconded by Cody Wms
Dr. David W. Golde at UCLA treated John Moore for hairy-cell leukemia, removing his spleen and various biological samples from his body. Over the following years, Dr. Golde had Moore return from Seattle to UCLA several times for follow up visits. Moore was told that follow-up procedures where to be performed only at UCLA and only under Dr. Golde's direction. On each visit Dr. Golde removed additional samples of blood, blood serum, skin, bone marrow, and sperm from Moore.
Undisclosed to Moore, Golde and his associates were using Moore's tissues, blood, and other fluids in the pursuit of a biotechnology patent worth billions of dollars.
The resulting technology, consisting of a cell line established from Moore's white blood cells, was patented as U.S. Patent No. 4,438,032, assigned to the University of California. The technology was licensed to pharmaceutical companies, and Dr. Golde was was rewarded with cash and stock.
Moore sued. The California Supreme Court held that Moore had no cause of action for conversion because, among other reasons, he "clearly did not expect to retain possession of his cells following their removal" and the genetic material in the cells was "no more unique to Moore than the number of vertebrae in the spine[.]"
Throwing out the suit against UCLA, the pharmaceutical companies, and all other defendants, the court left Moore with a breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim he could pursue against Dr. Golde only - a claim with limited practical value. Justice Mosk, in dissent, described the remedy as "largely illusory."
from Boyd v. Racine Currency Exchange, Inc., 56 Ill.2d 95 (Ill. 1973)
Nominated by James Grimmelmann
Text of the opinion
Prof. Grimmelmann summarizes what he calls "perhaps the most concisely tragic" case of all time with this: "teller under no duty to accede to robber's demands, when robber held gun to head of customer, plaintiff's decedent[.]"
Carlon, after nominating the Peevyhouses, was compelled to add, "That description of Boyd, though is certainly the best squib for any case I've ever seen."
True. But here's a little bit more regardless. From the opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court dismissing Piney Boyd's lawsuit:
"The plaintiff's husband, John Boyd, was present in the Racine Currency Exchange on April 27, 1970, for the purpose of transacting business. While he was there, an armed robber entered and placed a pistol to his head and told Blanche Murphy, the teller, to give him the money or open the door or he would kill Boyd. Blanche Murphy was at that time located behind a bulletproof glass window and partition. She did not comply with the demand but instead fell to the floor. The robber then shot Boyd in the head and killed him."
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