Injury: Assault & Negligence
Although assaults were often tried as criminal cases, an aggrieved party could also sue for civil damages. Legal tactics seem to have dictated exaggerating injuries in hopes of winning large awards. But juries might respond by awarding nominal damages when it looked like a fair fight, no matter who started it. In cases of excessive force, or when the victim was obviously weaker, the plaintiff could receive substantial compensation.
In 1830 Charles Stilphin appealed a Franklin County Court decision. He claimed that William Carr “falsely, wickedly & corruptly feigned to have entirely lost the use of his arm.” Stilphin presented witnesses who had seen Carr hard at work despite his supposed injury. On appeal, jury members explained their reasons for the $700 award. There hadn’t been a fight -- Stilphin had beaten Carr’s arm with a piece of wood until the bone was broken. His appeal was dismissed.
Excessive Force or Excessive Claims?
Sylvester Robinson and James Wilson began arguing after a Brownington school meeting. What happened next was a matter of dispute. According to Robinson, Wilson “with clubs, cudgels, bludgeons and sticks did strike many heavy and grievous blows upon the head and neck ... [and] with great violence did beat, bruise, jam and knock the said Sylvester down and prostrate upon the ground…and grievously beat, bruise, wound and mangle as well by striking the said Sylvester with his fists….” Robinson asked for $1,000, claiming the attack left him “sick, wild, insane and stupid” for three months. The jury didn’t buy it. They awarded him one cent, and the supreme court affirmed.
In 1880 an Eden real estate dispute led to a scuffle, which led to an assault charge. Lucretia Perkins accused John West of beating her up. West countered that he had been defending himself, and that she had been trespassing. The jury was instructed that defendant had a right to protect himself and property: “[E]very man has the right to defend his lawful possession…his children or family; he may go just far enough to defend the possession from threatened violence; if he goes beyond that he is liable for the excess of force that he makes use of.”
Bad Roads and Reckless Drivers
A 1797 Vermont statute made towns responsible for accidental injury and damage caused by any “insufficiency” of roads or bridges. Many hard-fought lawsuits took place before the liability was restricted to bridges and culverts, and award limits imposed, in 1880. Towns almost always attempted to prove that the victim was at fault, because substantial damage awards were at stake.
Quebec resident Moses Clough was killed in 1858 when his wagon hit a mud hole in Jay, Vermont. His body was dragged three quarters of a mile by the horse, to a point just over the border. The town argued that he may have been drunk, or may have fainted, or may have been hit by the wagon after getting out of it. Clough, “a cripple” who walked with a cane, supported his wife and five children as a peddler of friction matches and willow baskets that he made. Orleans county court and supreme court awarded the Cloughs $420.93 -- far less than the $5,000 requested.
In 1802 the Caledonia Supreme Court called in medical experts to determine malpractice damages against Jacob Verguson and Edward Lamb. They were sued by Jonathan and Chloe Eddy of Calais, after being called in to treat her sore breast in 1799. The Eddys charged that the two had amputated the breast “for the sole purpose of acquiring knowledge to themselves in the practice of amputation…” Nathan Smith of Dartmouth Medical College, Joseph Gallup of Vermont Medical College, and physician Samuel Huntington of Greensboro judged that $300 was a fair settlement. The Eddys had sought $3,000. Case files include depositions of Rebecca Davis, who dressed the wound, and of Sally Wheelock, who gave an account of the surgery -- and of burying and then digging up the breast and preserving it in spirits as evidence.
Lyndon resident John Green sued physician Benaiah Sanborn in 1860, charging that he had been negligent, careless and unskillful in treating his broken leg. Green never fully recovered, and could no longer work with his father as a carpenter-joiner. The Caledonia County Court jury awarded him $56 in damages -- about two month’s wages.
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