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Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Casual Casebook: The Canon of American Common Law

This summer I am planning to put together a casebook that is for leisurely reading, rather than a law-school course. My tentative title is "The Canon of American Common Law." 

It is an idea of mine that started with the thought that it would be exciting to give a special award to the first-year law student with the highest combined grade-point average in the three common law courses: Contracts, Property, and Torts. A good name would be the Holmes Award. But what would be a suitable prize? A perfect token, I thought, would be a book of the classic common-law cases. I think such a book would also be nice to have available for casual students of the law – people who would like to do some exploring in the law – but who are not looking for three years of law school.

Below is my very-rough draft table of contents, along with a list of “on the bubble” cases that are deserving, but that I might leave out to keep the size of the book manageable. I would be very grateful for your comments. Do any of the cases fail to qualify as classics? Am I grievously leaving something out? Am I close to closing in on a canonical list? Or am I way off?

Wood v. Boynton
Webb v. McGowin
Raffles v. Wichelhaus (The Peerless Case)
Hamer v. Sidway
Lucy v. Zehmer
Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon
Hawkins v. McGee
Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co.
Hadley v. Baxendale

Ghen v. Rich
Pierson v. Post
Brown v. Voss
Hannah v. Peel
Moore v. Regents of the University of California
Vanna White v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc.
State v. Shack
Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co.

Vosburg v. Putney
Garratt v. Dailey
Fisher v. Carrousel Motor Hotel, Inc.
Ploof v. Putnam
Katko v. Briney
Vincent v. Lake Erie Transportation Co. 
Byrne v. Boadle
Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co.
Summers v. Tice
Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California
U.S. v. Carroll Towing Co.
Vaughan v. Menlove
Rylands v. Fletcher
Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno

On the bubble:
Dougherty v. Salt
Taylor v. Caldwell
Brown v. Kendall
I de S et ux. v. W de S
Indiana Harbor Belt. R. Co. v. American Cyanamid Co.
Lumley v. Gye
MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co.
Stone v. Bolton

You’ll notice there are a few English cases in the mix, but they are ones that, I think, are nonetheless, classics of American common law, generally because of their entrenchment in the American 1L curriculum.

Also, you’ll notice I have not included any U.S. Supreme Court cases. That’s another casual-casebook project – but a worthy one. I plan to take that up separately.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on April 23, 2009 at 04:50 PM in Books, Property, Torts | Permalink


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I agree with Matt Bodie on Frigaliment Importing! The issue is, what is a chicken?

Posted by: NYU 2L | Apr 25, 2009 2:01:02 AM

I know you want to leave out Supreme Court cases, but I just don't see how a canon of the American common law can be complete without Swift, Erie, and, from admiralty, at least Jensen (particularly Holmes' dissent: "The common law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky, . . . ." etc.).

Posted by: anon | Apr 24, 2009 11:40:46 AM

For torts, how about Wagner v. Int'l Railway (Cardozo, J.) ("Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief . . . The emergency begets the man. The wrongdoer may not have foreseen the coming of a deliverer. He is accountable as if he had.").

Posted by: Aaron | Apr 24, 2009 9:37:00 AM

Objectively speaking, he was just joking about Zehmer!

Posted by: Lou Mulligan | Apr 24, 2009 9:07:33 AM

Take out Lucy v. Zehmer?!? You're as high as a Georgia pine!

Posted by: Jay | Apr 23, 2009 11:07:26 PM

Count me as another vote for Williams v. Walker-Thomas... its articulation of unconscionability is resurgent in many recent mortgage cases.

Posted by: Hauk | Apr 23, 2009 8:01:06 PM

I think I'd have to agree with the poster above me, having no real justification for doing so. I'm a current 1L who completed contracts last semester, and the cases he mentioned just seem much more memorable/important in my mind.

Posted by: Robert | Apr 23, 2009 7:22:50 PM

Here are additional Contracts cases I would consider adding or swapping in:

Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball

Hoffman v. Red Owl Stores

Jacob & Youngs v. Kent

Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. International Sales Corp.

Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co.

Sherwood v. Walker

If I had to swap some out, I'd probably take out Lucy v. Zehmer, Wood v. Boynton, and Webb v. McGowin.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Apr 23, 2009 5:49:02 PM

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