A 6 Cent Judgement

Detroit in January, 1851 was cold, snowy, icy. It was a flourishing town-about-to-be-a-city, but still far enough on the fringes of the United States to be considered the frontier, especially with British troops stationed directly across the river in Windsor, Ontario.

Detroit, then, was also a military town, the federal government kept a large post right in town, just to keep an eye on the northern fringes of Michigan and the Brits. In 1850 the army sent the 4th Infantry to garrison in Detroit. The 4th were veterans of the Mexican War, they were promptly bored out of their minds in Detroit.

Around January 10th – the dates are a bit fuzzy – the Quartermaster of the 4th Infantry, a lieutenant who had distinguished himself in Mexico, slipped and fell on the snow and ice covered sidewalk in front of Zachariah Chandler’s house. He severely injured a knee.

Chandler was not only the owner of the city’s largest general store, trading company, bank, and real estate concern, he was also the Mayor.

Detroit had a city ordnance requiring every home and business owner to clear their sidewalks. Chandler had not done so and apparently had a reputation for not exactly being on top of snow removal. The lieutenant approached Chandler’s people about compensation, he was shooed away.

So, he sued and Grant v. Chandler headed for Detroit Municipal Court. That’s Ulysses S. Grant before … well, everything.

Chandler defended himself, there’s nothing in the record about Grant having retained an attorney, subsequent events strongly indicate he did not.

Grant presented the ‘simple facts’ – the sidewalk was a slippery mess, he was on his way to his office, he slipped, twisted his knee, it was incredibly painful, he needed a cane (it was undoubtedly propped up against the table), the pain and his immobility were effecting his work. He may or may not have added that his greatest enjoyment in life, and major source of exercise, was horseback riding and he wasn’t even going to be able to get on a horse.

Grant was, in fact, renowned throughout the army as a superb rider. It would be months before he could ride again, his knee was that bad.

Grant’s case was strong and buttressed by Detroit’s ‘clean your sidewalk’ policy. Chandler, however, was not moved. When it came his turn to defend the claim, he had a few ways to go, not the least of which was Grant’s very reputation as a rider. Every member of the 4th Infantry knew the stories of the incredibly risky stunts Grant had pulled off on horseback, previous falls, and could attest that the wear and tear on his body was considerable.

Chandler, though, didn’t go that way, Instead, he talked about the army’s well-deserved reputation for excess drinking. The army in those early post-Mexico years was rife with alcoholism at a time when the Nation as a whole was giving up hard liquor in large numbers as Temperance Societies swept though the land. It’s estimated that 50% of the American public stopped drinking in 1850.

The army, then, stood out. And, if the average soldier was an amateur drunk, officers were professionals. Army officers were infamous for their drinking.

Grant was a member of the Sons of Temperance, he had, in fact started a branch at his last posting in Sacket’s Harbor, NY. Like the Hair Club for Men ad, he was not only the founder, he was a member – Grant was a binge drinker and a bad one at that. He drank when he was bored and there was liquor around and in the Army in 1850 plenty of both were available.

He had a reputation in the 4th as a binge drinker, he was respected enough for his almost outworldly abilities as a quartermaster that few ever spoke of it.

Chandler, though, heard the rumors somewhere. His presentation of his defense was brief and to the point: he, unlike the soldiers garrisoned in his town, was a very busy, industrious, sober man contributing to the city and did not have the time to see to his sidewalk every two seconds.

Then, this, “If you soldiers would keep sober, perhaps you would not fall on people’s pavement and hurt your legs.” He rested his case.

The jury found for Grant and awarded him . . . six cents. About $1.90 in today’s dollars. They charged Chandler an additional $8 as court costs.

A little-known historical note out of the distant past, but it perfectly illustrates a truism of personal injury law, then and now: it’s never simple. 

A simple case of a fall on an icy sidewalk in a city with a mandatory ‘shovel your sidewalk’ policy and an obvious injury did not end as it seemed it should.

A good lawyer would have warned Grant and prepared him for the ordeal. The result might have been different, at the least maybe the award and court fee would have been reversed.  Eight dollars went a long way in 1850.

Quick postscript: Grant, of course went on to becoming Commanding General of the Union Armies in the Civil War and eighteenth President of the United States. The knee bothered him the rest of his life. Chandler, an ardent Abolitionist, became a Senator and big backer of Grant as he rode through the ranks during the war. The two became friends, Chandler served as Grant’s Secretary of the Interior and is generally recognized as his best political appointment.