Crazy Torts of the Past

By Legal Eagle

Somehow, crazy tort claims seem like a modern phenomenon, a symptom of overly litigious and demanding consumer culture. However, this article from The Guardian says that insurance company Aviva researched tort law insurance claims dating back to the 1860s [pre-Donoghue v Stephenson], and found a plethora of frivolous or somewhat crazy claims:

…[T]he Aviva research indicates that frivolous claims pre-date any fee-free legal deals. Anna Stone, archivist at Aviva, found examples of completely self-inflicted and blatantly frivolous claims earning payouts worth thousands of pounds in today’s money.

These included:

  • A grocer from Lancashire slipped while playing Blind Man’s Buff – £15 paid in 1878 (modern equivalent: £724);
  • A travelling salesman from Belfast hit his head on a pole while watching an accident from the top of a tram – £7 paid in 1904 (modern equivalent: £401);
  • A merchant from Essex injured his eye while throwing rice at a wedding – £50 paid in 1892 (modern equivalent: £2,994);
  • A shipbuilder from Great Yarmouth swallowed a fish bone – £1,000 paid in 1900 (modern equivalent: £57,000);
  • An artist from Swansea blown down by gale of wind – £30 paid in 1886 (modern equivalent: £1,796);
  • A pharmacist from Dublin slipped on marble steps in a Turkish bath – £33 paid in 1885 (modern equivalent: £1,594);
  • An innkeeper from Handsworth, Birmingham, took poisonous potion after mistaking it for a sleeping medicine – £1,000 paid in 1878 (modern equivalent: £48,310); and
  • A merchant from Glasgow injured while jumping out of bed to catch his wife who had fainted – £42 paid in 1895 (modern equivalent: £2,575)

Many current day “no win, no fee” claims-farmers target people who have suffered accidents in supermarkets…[b]ut even that’s not a new development: in 1900 a bank clerk slipped on orange peel and was paid £156 in compensation – equivalent to £8,901 today.

Hey, I swallowed a fishbone once, where’s my £57,000?

[Via one of my lovely Torts students]


  1. Posted July 17, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    So the search for an American legal craziness that does not have a precedent in the Old Country goes on … 🙂

  2. Posted July 17, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    An eye opener. I thought that kind of thing came along with suing Macca’s because the coffee is hot and putting labels on the bottom of saucepans saying ‘Use other way up’. Wonder if it’s a part of human nature and that archaeologists may one day uncover evidence of a prehistoric Slater & Gordon ad campaign.

  3. kvd
    Posted July 17, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Finding it hard to see who some of these people could have sued? Did they have personal accident/injury policies back in those days?

  4. Posted July 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Head injuries to the tram rider, like those to train surfers of today, pose the problem of assessing any difference between before-and-after intelligence.

    This makes me wonder if SL knows of any similar trivia from classical times. I’m trying to think of anything Old Comedy particularly Aristophanes would have where the satire involved this kind of thing, because it would be great grist for the mill in that genre.

  5. Posted July 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    There are some lovely and equally frivolous delicts described in Ulpian. My favourite is one where three little kids were playing what sounds like football in the street. One of them kicked a ball through the front door of a barbershop, where a slave was getting his morning shave (the Romans used cutthroats, remember – this is long before Gillette). The ball hit the barber’s hands and the slave got his throat cut (not fatally obvs). The slave’s owner had to sue, of course, but because the children were ‘men of straw’ and doli incapax, she sued the barber for the full amount… and he had to pay up. The court held that he’d located one of his chairs too close to the door.

    Yeah, I thought it was a bit of a stretch as well.

  6. Posted July 17, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Torts law is all about vests.

    He who has the deepest pockets will be held ultimately responsible.

  7. Troy
    Posted July 18, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    These cases do indeed make a mockery of the law and what it stands for but I think that the funniest case I have heard of involved a UK lawyer who had purchased the remaining box of cigars that were unused from a well known movie.

    The lawyer had a little too much to drink one evening and decided to smoke his very expensive cigars. The following morning, when he had realised what he had done, he remembered that he had insured his expensive cigars, so he did what any lawyer would do, he claimed on his insurance policy that his cigars were “destroyed through a series of small fires”.

    The court held that the insurance company had to pay him under the policy but at the same time, he was fined the same amount for arson. Now that’s poetic justice.

  8. Posted July 18, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    As [email protected] has possibly unwittingly detected, these claims all appear to be claims under personal injury insurance (judging from the source story in the Guardian) in which case quite possibly (and quite certainly vis-a-vis the insured and the insurer) no tort was involved. You don’t need a tort to have an accident.

  9. kvd
    Posted July 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Marcellous, dunno why you added “possibly unwittingly” to your comment? Didn’t add anything to your point, which I thought I’d already wittingly made – politely.

  10. Posted July 18, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    kvd, I didn’t mean to dis you and sorry if I did or (Howard apology) you thought I did. I just responded to your questions, failing to realise that they were really rhetorical.

    Maybe you made your point too politely with those questions because nobody else seems to have twigged to it before I did, judging from the intervening comments.

  11. kvd
    Posted July 18, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Marcellous. Politeness is often equated with weakness, just as rudeness is mistaken for strength.

  12. Posted July 18, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m on a train in between London and Edinburgh, so can’t check, but I’m reasonably sure that while the Romans had insurance, there still had to be culpa (fault) on the part of the occupier/owner. I may be wrong on that, however – I seem to recall some exceptions.

  13. Posted July 22, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Legal Eagle: Re: the gale of wind, my thoughts exactly! Who would you sue?

    My guess is that the footpath was shoddy and it was reasonably foreseeable that someone would fall (even without the gale of wind). Does the eggshell-skull rule apply to negligence? I forget now.

    Or else, someone might have created a wind tunnel…

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