- The Alabama Way: Independent Courts and Policymaking in Alabama
In 1921, the alabama supreme court heard a case brought by Lula Jones, the wife of a mining company employee, G.W. Jones. Lula’s husband had bought some coal from his employer, the Gulf States Steel Company, which operated a mine in the coal country north of Birmingham. After Lula put some of the coal onto the fire at home, it soon exploded and injured her. She filed a lawsuit against her husband’s employer, contending that the company’s employees had been negligent in selling coal with an imbedded explosive.1
However, the Alabama Supreme Court, in accord with the prevailing common law rules of the time, held that Mrs. Jones could not maintain a lawsuit against the mining company since she did not have a contractual relationship with the company. Her husband had purchased the coal. Lula was a third party, or “stranger,” to the contract. Under Alabama law and the law of many other states at the time, a lawsuit against a seller of a negligently manufactured good could only be maintained if there was what the courts termed contractual “privity” between the maker and the buyer. There were exceptions to this rule, such as allowing liability for negligence regarding “obnoxious or dangerous” goods. Although explosives would certainly fall within this exception, the Alabama Supreme Court in an opinion authored by Justice Lucien D. Gardner held that the mining company was not in the business of selling coal to the [End Page 296] “general public.” Rather, this was an “isolated transaction,” and the mining company had no duty to inspect the coal before selling it.2
The outcome of Lula Jones’s case was not unusual in Alabama or much of the rest of America in 1921. This article will assess how the changes in products liability law throughout America in the twentieth century were received by Alabama institutions, namely the state’s supreme court and legislature. The most dramatic changes in Alabama products liability law occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. However, in order to understand Alabama’s response to the trends regarding tort liability in the 1960s and 1970s, it is important to understand the history of products liability legal reform in America since the nineteenth century. This article will review how Alabama’s institutions responded to the changes in products liability in other states during the twentieth century and consider whether the South had a distinct regional history regarding these legal reforms.
Under the law of most states in the United States throughout the nineteenth century and well into the 1910s, the maker of a defective good was liable only to those with whom he had a contract of sale.3 English courts provided precedents for American courts throughout much of the nineteenth century.4 The English rule regarding the purchase of goods, which was adopted by American jurisdictions in the early nineteenth century, was caveat emptor (“buyer beware”), and Alabama followed this rule.5 That is, consumers were responsible for inspecting and evaluating goods prior to agreeing to purchase them. This doctrine was praised in American courts of the nineteenth [End Page 297] century for accommodating the law to the practices of the marketplace. The rule was intended to allow for the inequality in knowledge and experience between parties to a contract and discouraged resort to courts to establish prices or otherwise second-guess a contract. In regard to contracts for the sale of goods, the leading caveat emptor case, Seixas v. Woods, which was issued by New York’s highest appellate court in 1804, held that recovery was allowed against a merchant only if he knowingly sold defective goods.6 Legal historian Morton J. Horwitz has contended that the caveat emptor rule was not merely the product of the evolving market economy of the English Industrial Revolution or the Early National Period in the United States. Rather, it was the product of a conscious policy choice by early nineteenth-century jurists to “overthrow” an equitable theory of contract, wherein a good was thought to have an objective value, which courts could determine, independent of the value placed on it...