Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Do Horse Poop and Personal Injury Lawyers Have In Common? Christy Brothers Circus v. Turnage (1928)

Vintage Poster for Christy Brothers Circus circa 1900.
Notice the conspicuous absence of dancing horses.
So, what exactly do horse poop and personal injury lawyers have in common?

You might think this is the start of a joke, but it is not. One of the most important legal precedents in U.S. history has to do with a horse "evacuating its bowels" on a spectator at a circus.

In 1927, the Superior Court in Georgia awarded Ms. Turnage damages due to "mental suffering, embarrassment, and mortification," even though she was not physically injured. Here is what happened: Ms. Turnage was in the front row at the Christy Brothers Circus, watching a dancing horse performance. In the course of the routine, one of the horses backed up to her and "evacuated its bowels onto her lap, in full view of many people, including circus employees, who all laughed at the occurrence."

I have to admit, if I had been at that circus, I would have laughed too. Even if I were the owner of the circus, I don't think I could have stopped myself from laughing at the site of a horse pooping on someone. But, the Randolph Superior Court was convinced that she had experienced mental suffering from the incident and awarded her monetary damages.

What makes this case unique (from a legal perspective, not from a humorous perspective) is that it set a precedent for an untold number of future civil cases. A person does not need to be physically harmed in order to be deemed "harmed" and owed damages. Ms. Turnage was not physically hurt at all in the incident, but the Court thought she was still harmed emotionally. Personal injury attorneys who argue that their clients suffered depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems related to the actions of others have Christy Brothers v. Turnage to thank for their legal arguments.

In 1928, the Appeals Court in Georgia affirmed the decision of the trial court in favor of Ms. Turnage, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Christy Brothers Circus v. Turnage  38 Ga. App. 581; 144 S.E. 680 ; 1928 Ga. App. LEXIS 343


Learn something new every day, they say. Wasn't expecting that new thing to be quite so surreal. It could easily have been a Monty Python sketch.

How would this case of mental suffering, where she was the center of attention, relate to an accident? Does that mean people could sue for seeing a horrific road traffic accident, too?

American law is as intriguing as it can be mind boggling to me.

There have been parents who have successfully sued negligent drivers after witnessing those drivers hit and kill their children. If you search my blog for "zone of danger," you can learn more about those legal precedents.

The key in this case is that the Circus will have to be found negligent for some reason, and the people must have suffered a major emotional problem as a result.

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