The social problems that society was originally trying to solve were how to equitably resolve issues of liability in negligence cases. In the case of Butterfield v. Forrester (1809), the plaintiff was injured after striking an obstruction in the roadway. The respondent while making repairs to his home put a pole across the road. The plaintiff, who
had just left a public house as it neared dark, while riding his horse violently through the streets, struck the pole and was seriously injured. A witness stated that if the plaintiff had not been riding so recklessly he would have observed the pole. There was no evidence the plaintiff was intoxicated at the time. There was nothing to state what appropriate behavior was, so the judge created the reasonable man standard. The reasonable man standard states that every human has a duty to act reasonably; therefore, a reasonable man would not have obstructed the road. The respondent countersued the plaintiff for negligence for racing through an occupied area at night. The judge had to create another rule because both parties were negligent.
The judge found that it was not fair for the plaintiff to receive recovery if he or she contributed to his or her own injury. The legal rule that was created to solve this problem was contributory negligence, which stated that if a plaintiff’s own negligence was a contributing cause of his injury, he was barred from recovering from a negligent respondent. The problem with this rule is that it often leads to inequitable results. For example, if a respondent is found to be ninety-nine percent negligent and the plaintiff only one percent negligent, under this rule the plaintiff is still barred from recovery. Also, if there is no punishment and no one held liable there would not be any reason to act with vigilance. Increasingly people begin to question the unfairness of this ruling and it created even more problems.
The social problem that society was now faced with was trying to alleviate the harshness of the application of the contributory negligence rule, which bars recovery for the plaintiff if they were at all negligent. In the case of Davis v. Mann (1842), the plaintiff tied down his donkey’s feet to keep it from running away and the donkey was left by the side of the road. The respondent was a business owner who hired a man to deliver his beer in order to keep his costs down. The respondent’s driver was coming down in his wagon at a high speed and hit the donkey and killed it. This case introduced the respondent superior rule, which held employers liable for their employee’s actions. Mann countersued based on the contributory negligence rule because Davis broke the law when he tied up his donkey’s feet and left it by the road. The judge had to make a new rule, which was “the last clear chance doctrine”, which is a doctrine in the law of torts that states that a negligent plaintiff can recover damages if they are able to show that the respondent had the last opportunity to avoid the accident. Some of the problems that emerged from this rule were that the person with the last clear chance may have only been five percent negligent and someone else contributed much more to the negligence than the person being held accountable. This was almost always the case after the Industrial Revolution
The social problem that society was trying to solve was that the Industrial Revolution introduced heavy machinery and in this setting, the worker always had the last clear chance, which created instability. In the case of British Columbia Electric Railway v. Loach (1915), Benjamin Sands was driving in a wagon and drove it over a railroad track, while an oncoming train was near. His passenger jumped out. Sands was struck and killed. The train had faulty brakes which were discovered the day of the accident. If the brakes had been working, the train would have stopped. This case introduced the proximate cause rule, which is the primary cause of an injury. It’s an act from which an injury results as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the injury would not have occurred. The problem with this rule is that it is extremely confusing and in application hard for a jury to comprehend and handle.
The social problem that society was now trying to solve is how to share liability between the plaintiff and the respondent, so that it’s fair and easy for a jury to understand. In the case of Maki v. Frelk (1968), the respondent ran a stop sign traveling at a high speed and was charged with many traffic violations. This case took place in a jurisdiction that was still using the contributory negligence rule, making Maki responsible, because he could have slowed down and prevented the accident.
The Maki family asked the court to adopt the comparative negligence rule. This rule states that a plaintiff’s negligence is not a complete bar to his recovery. The plaintiff’s damages are reduced by whatever percentage his own fault contributed to the injury. This requires the jury to determine, by percentage, the fault of the plaintiff and respondent in causing the plaintiff’s injury. For example, suppose a plaintiff is injured in a car accident and incurs one million dollars in damages. The jury determines that the plaintiff was twenty five percent responsible for the accident and that the respondent was seventy five percent responsible. The plaintiff will then be allowed to recover seventy five percent of his damages, or seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. In 1931 Wisconsin adopted the comparative negligence rule and was the first to modify it. Today, twenty three states use a modified form, ten states use a pure form, and two states use a top bottom system, which states that you have to have a low degree of negligence and they have to have a high degree of negligence or you are barred from recovery.
The goal of the civil justice system in the United States is to maintain social stability through fairness. The evolution that has taken place in the judicial system has reflected the changes in society as well as a better understanding of the civil process. Some of the early attempts seemed to always favor highly one side over the other without taking into account all of the facts. The continual tweaking of the system has given us one that appears to be equitable and relevant for the times. As society, technology, and the environment change so should the policies that govern it. Even though the early rulings didn’t appear to be impartial they set the precedents for the existing system which is fair and functional.