The “Emergency Doctrine” According to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Judge Carlin LOVED this guy.

A unanimous Strange Judicial Opinions Hall of Fame opinion is Cordas v. Peerless Transportation Co., penned in 1941 by Judge Carlin (no relation to George) of the New York City Court.

The defendant was a chauffeur and the victim of an armed car-jacking by a fleeing robber who threatened to blow the chauffeur’s brains out. In fright, the chauffeur slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the vehicle, which kept moving and hit the plaintiff pedestrian and her children (fortunately, injuries were slight).

The case stands for the unremarkable principle that under the basic negligence standard of reasonable care “under the circumstances,” people aren’t expected to exercise as much care in emergency situations as in non-emergencies where they have time to weigh and deliberate. It also stands as a literary masterpiece of judicial opinion writing.

Full appreciation of this classic can come only with a full reading, but here’s how it starts:

This case presents the ordinary man–that problem child of the law–in a most bizarre setting. As a lowly chauffeur in defendant’s employ he became in a trice the protagonist in a breath-bating drama with a denouement almost tragic. It appears that a man, whose identity it would be indelicate to divulge, was feloniously relieved of his portable goods by two nondescript highwaymen in an alley near 26th Street and Third Avenue, Manhattan; they induced him to relinquish his possessions by a strong argument ad hominem couched in the convincing cant of the criminal and pressed at the point of a most persuasive pistol.

Carlin apparently was a learned Shakespeare fan. In excusing the chauffeur from liability for jumping out of the moving vehicle, Carlin said:

If the philosophic Horatio and the martial companions of his watch were ‘distilled almost to jelly with the act of fear’ when they beheld ‘in the dead vast and middle of night’ the disembodied spirit of Hamlet’s father stalk majestically by ‘with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger,’ was not the chauffeur, though unacquainted with the example of these eminent men-at-arms more amply justified in his fearsome reactions when he was more palpably confronted by a thing of flesh and blood bearing in its hand an engine of destruction which depended for its lethal purpose upon the quiver of a hair.

Translation: It’s not negligent to react in fright when a carjacker has a gun pointed at your head.

Cordas v. Peerless Transp. Co., 27 N.Y.S.2d 198, 199, 201 (City Court of N.Y. 1941). Thanks to all the folks who sent in this classic.

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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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