Friday, April 01, 2016

The Monopoly Game's Tort Terrier

From The New Yorker comes this opening about the new American Museum of Tort Law founded by Ralph Nader:

In nineteen-forties Mississippi, William Daniels, an employee of the United Novelty Company, was cleaning a piece of his employer’s machinery. Daniels was using gasoline as a cleaning agent even though the company had repeatedly told its employees not to clean with gasoline. As he cleaned, the gasoline leaked through the machine and soaked a rat hiding underneath it. The rat ran under another machine for cover—a gas heater. The gas heater’s open flame lit the rat’s gasoline-soaked coat on fire, sending the flaming rat scrambling back toward the machine that Daniels was cleaning. Another drop of gasoline may have fallen on the rat. The resulting explosion killed them both. Daniels was nineteen.

Daniels’s estate sued the United Novelty Company for wrongful death. In 1949, the Supreme Court of Mississippi upheld a jury’s finding that the company was liable for his death. The court suggested that the company’s repeated warnings against cleaning with gasoline proved that the company knew that its employees were using gasoline to clean its machinery and that it was dangerous. The company hadn’t presented any evidence that Daniels himself had heard the warnings against using gasoline, but this was beside the point—it was the company’s responsibility, not the nineteen-year-old’s, to make sure its employees were not blown up while they worked.

This story is complete, as far as it goes, but there is more. 

In law school, this case is presented as an illustration of the expansive concept of foreseeability. While no one could foresee the precise problem -- a flaming rat -- it was perfectly foreseeable that using gasoline around an open flame could cause an explosion.

But there is another lesson here that could be learned -- the Law of Unintended Consequences.

You see, after the United Novelty Company lost its liability case in 1949, it put several ratting terriers in its warehouses and manufacturing plants.

Yes, that's right -- the company learned the wrong lessonLike the alcoholic who stops driving and keeps drinking, the management of United Novelty decided the RAT was the problem, not the gasoline or the open flame!

In any case, United Novelty had been the manufacturing company hired by Charles Darrow in the 1930s to produce small pieces for his new board game, Monopoly.

A Top Hat, Iron, Thimble, Shoe, and Toy Car were board pieces from the very start, but after the 1949 "flaming rat case," the folks at United Novelty added another piece to the collection -- a small die-cast model of their factory ratting terrier.

Described on the "spec sheets" as a "Tort Terrier," it is today the most beloved of all Monopoly pieces.

Want to know more?  

Head over to the American Museum of Tort Law tomorrow, as they are having a very special Spring Opening and launch.  And YES, they have a flaming rat T-shirt.

An original Tort Terrier piece from 1952.

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