There's an interesting case reference in my Torts casebook. We don't get the full decision, or even a quote from it, but the case is Judson v. Giant Powder Co., 40 P. 1020 (Cal. 1895). In the case, Giant Powder Co. owned a nitroglycerine plant in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Judson owned an adjacent property. One day, the nitroglycerine plant exploded. That is, the whole damn plant blew up. This presented a problem when the inevitable tort suit rolled in. You see, torts, or suits inspired by damages (car accidents are the most common tort suits) generally adopt a negligence standard for liability. As a general rule, if you get injured, you pay for your own damn injury, and the Court has no remedy for you, UNLESS you can prove that the party who caused your injury was negligent in some way. They were driving drunk, or on the wrong side of the road, etc.

There is, however, a doctrine called res ipsa loquitur. Under res ipsa, an accident occurs that, by common knowledge, implies negligence on its face. The case that established the doctrine was, as most doctrine-establishing cases are, an eighteenth-century English case, Byrne v. Boadle. On that occasion, Byrne was riding a cart past Boadle's mill. Suddenly, WHAM! he felt a great pain in the head and was knocked unconscious. He awoke some time later next to a broken flour barrel. A witness testified that a flour barrel had come flying out the window and landed on the unfortunate Mr. Byrne's head. This was supposedly an open-and-shut case for Boadle. Standards of proof were quite high at the time, and it was very difficult to collect on a tort suit outside of certain specific circumstances. While Byrne knew all about the barrel flying out the window, he had no idea why it flew out the window or who had caused it, and he had no hope of ever proving in a court of law that negligence had occurred and fingering the responsible party. Since the burden of proof lay on him, the case was a lost cause.

But then that rarest of things happened, a judge took sympathy, and the course of the law since then has been guided by that one judge's action (you'd be surprised how much of our law these days is the result of one judge discovering that he has a heart, and how many people suffered as a result of judges who lacked them). The judge argued that "the facts speak for themselves" (res ipsa loquitur in latin). Barrels do not, as a matter of course, go flying out of second-story windows. The very fact that one had, in this case, was proof on its face that somebody, somewhere in that factory was negligent. If they weren't negligent, it wouldn't have happened. The burden of proof was therefore shifted to Boadle: We're pretty damn sure you were negligent, now prove to us you weren't.

So, returning to our exploding nitroglycerine plant: The trial judge ruled that this was a case for res ipsa. Factories should not explode, even if they are nitroglycerine factories. The fact that this one did explode was proof on its face that someone fucked up. The problem that arose was that there was no evidence whatsoever for either side in this case, other than the fact that the event occurred. This is because, by its nature, the explosion blew up the negligent party, his foremen, all witnesses, and every single worker at the plant. The plant had elaborate safety protocols, a regime of inspections and documentation, etc. which might have been presented at trial as evidence of Giant Powdeer Co.'s due care... if said documentation were not also blown up in the explosion. Needless to say, Giant Powder settled after the res ipsa ruling came down; any case they might have had had literally been blown to Kingdom Come.

Anyhow, The Case of the Exploding Nitroglycerine Plant goes into my list of events that were enormously tragic but which, because I am a bad person, I find funny, along with the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.



For introducing me to the concept of the Great Molasses Flood, I am forever indebted to you.

It makes me suspicious of the origin of the concept of Treacle Mine Road, and the old treacle mine therein, in Terry Pratchett's books. I just wonder.

Yeah, the Molasses Flood is great. It gives you an opportunity, if you are the dramatic sort, to use phrases like "A great tidal wave of gooey, viscous death!"

I'm of a generally agnostic sort, but if you could provide me documentary evidence that somebody standing near the molasses tank said or thought, just prior to its explosion, "Man, I could go for some molasses right now," or "I'd give my soul for something sweet!" then I would believe wholeheartedly in the existence of a god, or karma, or a force greater than ourselves, with a supernaturally cruel sense of irony.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 20, 2005 8:31 PM.

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