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Vosburg v. Putney: 1890

A Kick Rebounds, "a Peculiar Suit", Litigation Continues

Plaintiff: Andrew Vosburg
Defendant: George Putney
Plaintiff Claim: That defendant kicked plaintiff and otherwise ill-treated him, thereby making plaintiff ill, causing great pain and mental anguish, and leaving him permanently crippled
Chief Defense Lawyers: Milton Griswold, Theron Haight
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Ernst Merton, Timothy Edward Ryan
Judge: Andrew Scott Sloan
Place: Waukesha, Wisconsin
Date of Trial: January 15-17, 1890
Verdict: Defendant was liable for injury to plaintiff
Award: $2,800 plus court costs

SIGNIFICANCE: This seemingly petty trial in an obscure courtroom, little known to most Americans even in its own day, is one of the classic landmark cases in American legal history—and therefore well known to all law students. Its importance lies not only in its implications for the branch of civil law known as tort—specifically, the laws that deal with the recovery of payments for unintended and unforeseeable harm—but also for other issues raised by the series of legal battles that ensued.

By 1889, the village of Waukesha, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee, had become known as the "Saratoga of the West" after the curative powers of its local spring water were discovered. While life in Waukesha was more bustling than its location suggested thanks to the wealthy visitors who flocked to its spas, it was an unlikely setting for a spate of litigation that would result in legal doctrine still scrutinized by law students today. The personal injury lawsuit—so often demonized in the shape of the hospital-hasing lawyer today—might have been foreign to the Waukesha litigants. However, the personal drama that unfolded in the Vosburg trials suggests that something in the American experience was ripe for the growth of this area of the law.

It was for work that Seth Vosburg, father of three, located his family to Waukesha, and shortly after their arrival he took on a teamster's job with Barker Lumber Company. His eldest son, Andrew, was enrolled in the highly regarded Union School, the oldest permanent school in the village. Andrew had suffered successive childhood illnesses and in January 1889 had injured his leg in a sledding accident. Despite his physical weakness, Andrew was expected to complete his chores and contribute to the livelihood of his family.

Also enrolled at the Union School was George Putney, son of a prosperous Waukesha family. George had already tried to bully Andrew out of possession of a schoolbook when an incident between the two boys would earn them a place in America's legal canon.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917