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Gary slapper. The cases that changed britain. Part I: 1770-1870

1. Davis V East

January 8, 1788

This decision was a classic early example of the courts holding someone to the terms of a commercial bargain over goods whose quality he had inspected and accepted. The action was in Westminster, the defendant a cabinet maker who had agreed to purchase 13 mahogany logs for £18. The seller argued that the wood should be paid for as agreed but the buyer said that the batch of logs was worthless, as it differed from some of the samples he had inspected. There were holes in it “so great that you might put your head into them”; according to one wood expert, it was the “worst he ever saw”. But the verdict went in favour of the claimant, who was entitled to be paid the agreed price of £18 by the cabinet maker because the sale batch was, in general, the quality of wood he had agreed to buy.

2. Ormond V Payne July 9, 1789

This colourful case involving a butcher and a prince’s coachman embodied the metropolitan bustle of the age; it was also notable in the development of personal injury actions. It concerned an ordinary man who was injured by a royal carriage. The claimant, George Ormond, was a butcher who lived in Turnham Green, West London. The defendant, Don Payne, looked after the affairs of the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. The butcher sued Payne after the Prince’s coachman, George Smith – for whom he was legally responsible under civil law – drove into the butcher’s cart, breaking his leg. The coachman, according to Ormond’s claim, was in a terrible hurry and “in liquor”. The moment the horses were harnessed and he had mounted the box, he had “called for a glass of gin, drank it, threw the glass violently upon the pavement, flogged his horses” and sped away at a gallop. The jury found that Payne was liable for the coachman’s actions and awarded £100 damages.

3. The King V Dodd May 30, 1808

In the early 18th-century, investors poured money into the South Sea Company on the strengths of its hopes of a great trade with South America. In 1720 it collapsed. Many other companies failed around the same time, and joint stock organisations – whereby a company’s capital comes from shareholders – were discredited and eventually banned under the so-called “Bubble Act”. In 1808 the Act was used controversially against a businessman named Dodd. He had published a couple of prospectuses hoping to raise £50,000 by issuing shares but Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice, ruled that such a scheme was unlawful. He said he hoped others would not engage in similar “mischievous and illegal projects”. In other words, commercial activity in 1808 was restricted to unincorporated partnerships, under which each partner is liable for all the business. Companies as we know them did not really become popular until the Companies Act 1844.

4. R V Burdett November 28, 1820

The defendant, Sir Francis Burdett, was charged with seditious libel after he wrote a letter containing strong expressions about the conduct of the Government in dispersing the “mutiny” at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on August 16, 1819. The letter claimed that unarmed men and women had been “inhumanly cut down, maimed and killed by the King’s Troops”. On the direction of Mr Justice Best that the letter was a poisonous libel, the defendant was found guilty, fined £2,000 and sentenced to three month’s imprisonment. It was upheld on appeal.

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