Legal research can be our bread and butter. Often, we scour the reported opinions, sometimes chancing across decades old opinions chronicling long ago cases argued by long dead attorneys. It’s interesting, sometimes, to think that those lawyers from days gone by were just as invested in and frustrated by their cases as we are here today, although it’s difficult to feel a connection to the ancient facts and archaic language. Too much time has passed. However, I recently re-visited a 1927 case with an intriguing family connection: Dedman v. Dedman, 155 Tenn. 241, 291 S.W. 449 (Tenn. 1927). Yep, I’m a Dedman, too, and the parties to that 80 year old case are my relatives.
The suit was brought by Plaintiff Mrs. Elizabeth Fariss Dedman (my grandfather’s mother) against Defendant Mrs. Joseph M. Dedman (the mother in law of Elizabeth Fariss Dedman). Like so many cases since, the facts centered around an automobile accident. The plaintiff was injured in an auto accident while riding in a car owned by the defendant and driven by her chauffeur. Apparently, the the trial court entered a judgment for the plaintiff, which was affirmed by both the court of appeals and the supreme court.
As recited by the Court, the facts were these:
The parties lived in Columbia, Tenn., about 40 miles from Nashville. The plaintiff is the wife of defendant’s son. The defendant had a daughter, Mrs. Henry Moore, also living in Columbia. Shortly before Christmas, 1924, Mrs. Moore had arranged to make a shopping trip to Nashville with some lady friends. It was Mrs. Moore’s intention to go to Nashville on the bus and spend the day. The defendant had been ill, and before leaving for Nashville Mrs. Moore called to find out what her mother’s condition was, and informed her father who answered the telephone that it was her intention to go to Nashville that day if her mother was well enough for her to leave. Mr. Dedman communicated this information to his wife, the defendant, and the latter at once objected to Mrs. Moore and her friends making the trip on the bus. About this time the plaintiff dropped in to ask about defendant, her mother-in-law, and defendant told plaintiff to call up Mrs. Moore and say that defendant desired that Mrs. Moore make the trip to Nashville in Mrs. Dedman’s automobile. Defendant also suggested that it would be a good opportunity for plaintiff to go to Nashville and do Christmas shopping, and suggested that plaintiff join the party. All the ladies agreed to this arrangement, and the defendant directed her chauffeur to get out her car and take the party to Nashville.
Mrs. Moore asked two other ladies in Columbia to make the trip, and they accepted the invitation. The party then started out in defendant’s large closed car. The chauffeur and the plaintiff sat on the front seat. The other three ladies sat on the rear seat. They proceeded about 18 miles along the highway toward Nashville, when in passing through the village of Thompson Station the Dedman car collided with another car at a road crossing and plaintiff received the injuries for which she sues.
The parties lived in Columbia, Tennessee, where both my father and I were born. It’s strange to read about a family outing in the factual background section of a Tennessee Supreme Court opinion; stranger still to see that one relative was suing another for injuries.
The plaintiff attempted to prove at the trial that the defendant’s chauffeur was negligent and speeding during the outing. The jury apparently agreed, and the brand new Tennessee Court of Appeals – created in 1925 and after the accident at issue – affirmed the verdict. On appeal to the supreme court, there was an issue relating to the defendant’s responsibility for the chauffeur and the extent to which the guest is responsible for her own safety in the automobile. In dealing with the rights and responsibilities of an automobile guest and passenger, the case is not unlike many that we encounter today in transportation litigation. Interestingly enough, the opinion was authored by Chief Justice Grafton Green, currently the record holder for the longest term of service on the Tennessee Supreme Court. In this case, Green wrote that “the question of the guest’s contributory negligence has been held to be one for the jury” and reaffirmed that principle. Wrote he: “Comparing the respective contentions of the parties thus outlined, we are satisfied that reasonable men might differ as to whether the plaintiff acted with ordinary care under the circumstances disclosed–as to whether she conducted herself as a prudent person ordinarily would do. In this plight of the case, the question of her contributory negligence was one for the jury.”
It’s been cited nearly 40 times since 1927, most recently in 1986 (and now by one blog in 2011).
It’s funny to think how many moments of history are captured in our case law. Of course, I’m not just referring to legal history; rather, I also reference the basic facts of every day life which are recited in court opinions. Often litigants are arguing about what might be one of the worst or most difficult days of their lives, and if their case reaches the appellate level, then those facts are chronicled for posterity. How else would I know about an automobile accident in the 1920’s involving my forebears from that era?