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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Most Screwed Victims in Case Law History - Time to Vote

Johnny_automatic_corkscrew_vote_butThe 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.

Mrs. Palsgraff

from Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 248 N.Y. 339 (N.Y. 1928)
Nominated by Howard Wasserman
Seconded by Alan Childress
Text of the opinion
Wikipedia article

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.

The Peevyhouses

from Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co., 1962 OK 267 (Okla. 1962)
Nominated by Andrew Carlon
Seconded by John Anderson
Wikipedia article
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 - $300 - not the amount that would be required to accomplish what Garland had originally agreed to do.

John Moore

from Moore v. Regents of the University of California, 51 Cal. 3d 120 (Cal. 1990)
Nominated by JM
Seconded by Cody Wms
Wikipedia article

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."

The Boyds

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."

P.S.: Thanks to Andrew Carlon for pointing out an error in my description of Peevyhouse. I had said the court awarded damages of $5,000 for diminution of value. In fact, the court reduced the award to $300, saying the evidence did not support any higher amount. It has been corrected above.

Jump to related posts:
Most Screwed Victims in Case Law History - Time to Vote - April 16, 2008
The Peevyhouses: The Most Screwed Victims in Case-Law History - May 9, 2008

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on April 16, 2008 at 01:32 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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I'm so late on the vote, but came across this and had to comment. I remember reading most of these cases in school. However, I noticed that Katko v. Briney didn't make the list...Mr. Briney is the "poster child" for victims screwed in case law history. If you recall: Mr. Briney mounted a spring loaded shotgun in his unoccupied house, the shotgun severely injures Mr.Katko's leg when he broke into the house to steal some antiques. Katko (the thief) sues, and the court held in favor of Katko. He was awarded $20,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages. As a subsequent note: I think Mr. Briney had to sell his property to satisfy the judgment while he appealed. So, Mr. Briney certainly deserves an honorable mention.

Posted by: Kenyatta | May 6, 2008 11:04:41 AM

Ahh. Bad facts + bad law. Yeah, Portee doesn't qualify, then.

It is an awful, awful set of facts, though.

Posted by: Kaimi | Apr 18, 2008 12:25:29 PM

I agree with the Erie and WWVW commenters. It's always the litigants in the big civ pro cases that get screwed by arcane legal rules.

Posted by: anon | Apr 18, 2008 10:53:28 AM

Palsgraf, definitely! Not only did she lose, but she had to pay costs. The costs were more than a year's salary for her!

Posted by: WD_GULC | Apr 18, 2008 9:52:50 AM

These cases all pale by comparison to the harm done the Robinson's in Woodson v. World Wide Volkswagen. They were burned beyond recognition, did everything right legally and still lost big time at every stage of their multiple and interminable lawsuits, just because some smart-alec and recently defrocked law clerk got a personal jurisdiction bug up his ass and the Supreme Court ran with it. I recognize that it's too late to nominate other candidates. I don't read this blog and didn't realize you were having a contest. But victory here will be hollow given the absence of Mrs. Robinson and her children. Their case is truly the American Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.

Posted by: RJC | Apr 18, 2008 9:01:19 AM

Portee won on appeal and got NIED expanded to cover her case. It was an awful situation but she was able to recover from the elevator company. So she was not screwed by the legal system.

Posted by: Anonymous | Apr 18, 2008 8:52:58 AM

What about Thompson from Erie?

Posted by: anon | Apr 18, 2008 8:34:51 AM

They all got pretty screwed, I think it's a toss-up between the Boyds and Peevyhouses.

What about Hawkins' hairy hand from Hawkins v. McGee?

Posted by: WL | Apr 18, 2008 1:29:35 AM

Kaimi, that is bad facts, but what was the legal decision that truly screwed that poor mother?

I'm voting the Peevyhouse's, because that's not even good law.

Posted by: Judith | Apr 18, 2008 12:33:33 AM

Definitely Peevyhouse. Paradigmatic example of under-compensation in the the legal system. This is the only case where the people got really screwed and the law is really at fault.

Palsgraff got screwed, but not by the railroad or the court. I don't have a lot of sympathy for someone who goes after the deep pocket, rather than the person at fault (the passenger), and losses.

As mentioned above, Moore's loss doesn't rise to the level of most screwed ever.

The Boyds are a close runner-up in my book. They definitely got screwed, but you can't really fault the court for their application of the law in that case (right application of the right rules).

Posted by: Anonymous | Apr 18, 2008 12:01:24 AM

What, no love for Portee v Jaffee? That one's got facts to rival Boyd for sheer awfulness. The court notes:

Plaintiff's seven-year-old son, Guy Portee, [***3] resided with his mother in a Newark apartment building. Defendants Edith Jaffee and Nathan Jaffee owned and operated the building. On the afternoon of May 22, 1976, the youngster became trapped in the building's elevator between its outer door and the wall of the elevator shaft. The elevator was activated and the boy was dragged up to the third floor. n1 Another child who was racing up a nearby stairway to beat the elevator opened it, saw the victim wedged within it, and ran to seek help. Soon afterwards, plaintiff and officers of the Newark Police Department arrived. The officers worked for four and one-half hours to free the child. While their efforts continued, the plaintiff watched as her son moaned, cried out and flailed his arms. Much of the time she was restrained from touching him, apparently to [**523] prevent interference with the attempted rescue. The child suffered multiple bone fractures and massive internal hemorrhaging. He died while still trapped, his mother a helpless observer.

Posted by: Kaimi Wenger | Apr 17, 2008 11:26:50 PM

My comment on Peavyhouse is the same as I had in law school when our contracts professor delighted in the outrage of the class concerning this "lesson on the limits of expectancy damages" and that is, that must be one crappy farm.

Posted by: Ken Corey-Edstrom | Apr 17, 2008 10:39:28 AM

A clarification: in Peevyhouse, it was the jury who awarded the princely sum of $5,000 for a breach whose remedy cost $25,000. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, in its wisdom, reduced that to three hundred dollars.

PS: I get a bounceback when I try to email the address above.

Posted by: Andrew Carlon | Apr 17, 2008 1:52:00 AM

John Moore surely strikes me as the most exploited of the bunch. Stripmined, lied to and exploited.

"Dr. Golde was was rewarded with cash and stock." I'm not sure the breach of fiduciary duty suit would be so pointless after all. A jury would be allowed to award punitive damages and he could probably trace assets for disgorgement.

I'm biased though. I'd just as soon see the UCLA medical department rendered down for tallow.

On the other hand, Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co. has always struck me as just wrong. Seems like fraud in the inducement -- though proving that is another story.

The Boyds are just a normal tragedy. There are a lot of them, it is nothing new.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Apr 16, 2008 10:00:04 PM

The Peevyhouses win hands down. Not only did they get totally shafted by the mining company, but they had the added indignity of being named Peevyhouse, which should, in itself, have entitled them to some remedy.

Posted by: eric | Apr 16, 2008 9:44:27 PM

If I may campaign against Palsgraf a bit: To the extent her screwed-over-ness depends on the order of costs against her, I'm not super impressed.
(1) I admit I don't know anything about New York state procedure circa 1928, but based on general modern usage, I don't think that Cardozo was ordering her to pay the other side's attorneys' fees but rather just ordering her to pay other costs (costs of copying the briefs, preparing the record, etc.); I'm not saying this is always a trivial amount, but it's not the same as ordering fees.
(2) It is not at all unusual for the loser of an appeal, or a trial, to have to pay such costs; loser-pays-costs is the default in the federal system today, for example. See FRAP 39; FRCP 54. Having glanced through a few older NY cases, it looks like sometimes they award costs and sometimes not. But whether or not Cardozo's decision to award the LIRR costs in all courts was normal or unusual at the time, it is hard for me to get too upset over it.

Posted by: Aaron Bruhl | Apr 16, 2008 4:15:22 PM

While Dr. Golde is clearly scum, I'm not sure Moore belongs on this list, if only because the other plaintiffs all were placed at tangible disadvantage by the wrongs they were suing over while Moore simply lost out on a theoretical (and unprecedented, AFAIK) opportunity for profit. In other words, and to be completely unfeeling for the purpose of conciseness, all Moore got out of it was his cancer cured, and all he truly lost was his spleen.

He was arguably wronged, and significantly so, but I'm not sure he belongs in the company of the other three.

Posted by: Auguste | Apr 16, 2008 3:15:19 PM

What about Joshua DeShaney? I know he wasn't the litigant, so he probably doesn't fit your criteria, but whenever I feel sorry for someone, it's him.

Posted by: poorjoshua | Apr 16, 2008 1:38:59 PM

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