For this part of orientation, common law is discussed and we were asked to review three cases: Winterbottom v. Wright, Thomas and Wife v. Winchester, and MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. I will be writing up a brief for each case using a basic brief format.

Introduction to Common Law

Common law is used to describe the process by which a court decides the custom of law. In other words, common law is the precedent future courts will use when determining cases, rather than codes.

One way of thinking about common law is to differentiate it from civil law. Civil law uses codes to determine what the law is. When there are no codes, common law examines similar court cases to determine the law. This process comes mainly from the English system and was adopted by the colonies when they organized their court system.

There are two main limitations to common law. The first is jurisdictional because of the federal system of the United States. A court in Iowa could create a ruling that is completely different than the ruling made by a court in Utah. The second limitation deals with the similarities and differences of cases. Because no two cases are exactly alike, it could be difficult to ascertain which common law should be used. Because of slight differences, a court could use a law for one part of a case, and another for a different part of a case. Therefore, these differences present a challenge when conducting legal research.

Winterbottom v. Wright

Court of Exchequer, 1842.
10 M. & W. 109, 11 L.J.Ex. 4151, 152 Egn.Rep. 402.

Plaintiff

Winterbottom

Defendant

Wright

Background

Winterbottom was contracted to drive a mail-coach for the postmaster general. However, he only took the position because there was a contract between Wright and the postmaster stating that Wright would manage the mail-coach and was liable for any damages caused by it. Winterbottom was frail and the coach broke while he was driving. The injuries caused by the accident caused him to be lame for life.

Claims

The plaintiff claims that the defendant was negligent in maintaining the well-being of the coach. This is evidenced by the lack of keeping the contract and knowledge of the coach defects.

Defense

The plaintiff is not a direct party of the contract and therefore in not subject to a remedy. The remedy should be decided between the defendant and the postmaster.

Holding

“Judgement for the defendant”. That is, judgement in behalf of the defendant. No need to remedy is necessary.

Analysis

The Lords in this case state that the contract was solely between the defendant and the postmaster. The plaintiff had no part in this agreement. Had he been so, there might have been a case in their behalf.

The court also referenced Levy v. Langridge. In that case, a gun was purchased for a son. However, because the son believed he was a part of that contract, he was a party member by fraud. So, although he had not explicitly been party, he was a party member. That is how the court differentiates that Levy from Winterbottom. Winterbottom knew he was a third party.

The court also stated that had they ruled in favor of the plaintiff, then anybody injured in the accident would have a case against the defense.

Why should we care?

This case shows us how the court used common law as a factor in the analysis. They showed the similarities, but more importantly, pointed out the differences.

Thomas and Wife v. Winchester

Court of Appeals of New York, 1852. 6 N. Y. 397

Plaintiff in trial court

Thomas and Wife

Defendant in trial court

Winchester

Background

While ill, Mrs. Thomas was administered belladonna by mistake, believing the medication to be dandelion, and sustained injuries. The label on the purchased medicine was labeled “prepared by A. Gilbert”. However, Gilbert had not prepared the medicine, but instead had purchased the label from Winchester, the defendant. The court acquitted Gilbert and charged Winchester $800. Winchester appealed.

Claims

Winchester claims that he is a remote vendor and there is no privity or connection between him and the plaintiffs, therefore, there can be no remedy collected by the plaintiffs. Cites Winterbottom

Defense

Because the life of the plaintiffs were threatened, the judgement should be affirmed.

Holding

Judgement affirmed in behalf of the plaintiff

Analysis

The court compares Winterbottom to the case at hand. Winchester argued that because he was “A” and the plaintiff was party “C” with no direct agreement, they were not liable for the damages caused. However, the court said that the negligence of Winchester caused an imminent danger to the plaintiffs because of the poison administered. This is different than Winterbottom because there was no imminent danger present in that case. The court used Longmeid v. Holliday to explain the difference of imminent danger.

Why should we care?

We learn of the relationship between Winterbottom and Winchester. It is important to note that although similar cases (A has a contract with B, but C was the injured party), caveats can exist that result in different rulings. In this case, the fact that the mislabel of the product threatened the life of party C, made party A directly liable.

MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co.

Court of Appeals of New York, 1916
217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050, L.R.A.1916F, 696, Ann.Cas.1916C, 440.

Plaintiff

MacPherson

Defendant

Buick Motor Co.

Background

Cardozo J. was a manufacturer for Buick. He manufactured a vehicle, sold it to a dealership who sold it to MacPherson. Upon driving the vehicle, it collapsed and the plaintiff sustained injuries. The vehicle part that collapsed was made of faulty wood.

Legal Question

Did the manufacturer own any liability to anyone other than the direct purchaser?

Claims

The manufacturer has liability because the faulty equipment injured the plaintiff. Therefore, the ruling in Winchester should be expanded to include dangerous actions, not just life threatening ones.

Defense

This case was already decided in Winterbottom. For instance, party A is not liable for the injuries received by party C, especially if the injuries were not life threatening.

Holding

Judgement affirming in favor of the plaintiff.

Analysis

This case is interesting because it relies heavily on Winchester. In Winchester, the manufacturer was held liable because it dealt in dangerous objects. Because of this case, the rule was that if the substance was poisonous, explosive, or dangerous in nature, then the court should find the manufacturer liable. Here, however, we find that any object made improperly can be dangerous. Therefore, if an object has a high probability of being dangerous if made improperly, then the manufacturer should be liable.

Why should we care?

This case seems in direct contract to Winterbottom. However, there is a silver lining for those who still rely on Winterbottom. MacPherson made no reference to Winterbottom. In fact, it outlined instances when Winterbottom may still be considered precedent. For instance, when a landlord rents a place, then the lessee invites guests, the landlord would not be liable for the lessee bringing friends to a faulty location. However, if the landlord leases a location for the sake of public entertainment, the landlord would be liable for injuries sustained by attendees.

Disclaimer

The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

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Categories: Orientation

Will Laursen

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