Hadley’s Reprise

Originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

Hadley’s Reprise


Lawyers think law professors have it easy, but teaching today’s students demands a wide range of skills: juggling, magic tricks and preferably a decent animal act. This generation has been force-fed flash and sizzle entertainment since birth. Videogames, MTV, action flicks, sitcoms, web sites … their entire lives are one huge neural stimulus.

But then law school comes along and pushes the pause button. No more action, just moldy old cases written in the most stilted prose imaginable. Take a classic contracts case like Hadley v. Baxendale. Insomnia? Just read this snoozer.

Hadley hired Baxendale to transport a broken mill shaft for repair. Because Hadley’s mill couldn’t operate without the shaft, time was of the essence. Baxendale transported the shaft for repair by canal and it arrived late, causing Hadley to lose business. Hadley sued for lost revenues, but couldn’t recover them because he hadn’t told Baxendale about his special circumstances.

The court starts out: “[A]t the last Gloucester Assizes, it appeared that the plaintiffs carried on an extensive business as millers at Gloucester; and that, on the 11th of May, their mill was stopped by a breakage of the crank shaft … blah, blah, blah.” From a reader interest standpoint, this introduction suffers from several flaws, not the least of which is that people hate sentences with “assizes” in them.

We need to update legal education to keep in step with modern consumer expectations. I propose that law schools hire writers to rewrite all old cases with the goal of making them more readable, more comprehensible and possibly into blockbuster movies. Here’s what a little sprucing up can do for a relic like Hadley v. Baxendale:

Shark attack! Baxendale watches in shock as the Great White, rare in English canals, rises from the dank water and devours the front of his boat.

He hadn’t counted on this. “Now I’ll be late delivering the mill shaft for sure.” Hefting the broken shaft as a harpoon, he dives in the canal to fight the shark, oblivious to the men in the black sedan parked on the barge following him.

Meanwhile …

Hadley pulls from Rita’s embrace. “I need time to think,” he says sullenly and retreats to the veranda with his glass of whiskey. Where was Baxendale? The fool was two days late arriving at Greenwich with the broken shaft. Everything depended on that shaft getting fixed on time. His career, the mill, his dark secret … Rita.

He feels her silky touch and turns to accept her waiting lips, all the while thinking: I should have told Baxendale this delivery was important, but I forgot.

Meanwhile …

Baxendale stumbles into the repair shop and collapses. Three days late, but it’s a miracle he made it at all. He had to drag the Great White twenty miles after it swallowed the mill shaft, on one leg. Why had he done it? For 2£, 4 s., and he wasn’t even sure how much money that was. Yet he risked his life. Risked everything … for Rita.

Peppier than the original, don’t you agree? If you have any thoughts about the big screen version, please do send them. Personally, I picture Robert Duvall as an irascible Baxendale, maybe Brad Pitt as a young, driven Hadley and definitely Sandra Bullock as Rita. I’d go see anything with Sandra Bullock, except maybe Marbury v. Madison.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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