THE NITRO GLYCERINE CASE

updated 11 July 2018

Nitroglycerine is a well known explosive, invented in Italy in 1847.

Pure nitroglycerine is very unstable. Until ways of making nitroglycerine stable were developed, nitroglycerine was not widely used and was not well known.

The Background

In 1872, nitroglycerine was not well known in the United States. A man came to the New York office of Wells Fargo, the famous carriers, with a crate. He wanted the crate transported to California.

The clerk accepting it complained that the crate was not marked or strapped, and the man paid extra for this to be done by the clerk.

The crate was shipped by boat with thousands of other crates to Panama, transported overland (the Panama Canal did not open until 1914), and then went by ship to California.

On unloading, it was discovered that a sweet oil had spilled out of a crate, marking another crate. The two crates were taken to a Wells Fargo office to be inspected. Was the spillage the ship’s fault, or was responsibility with Wells Fargo, or even with the customer who had sent it?

Explosion!

The crate was opened in the normal way, with a mallet and chisel. It blew up, killing all the officials and destroying the entire building.

Who is liable?

Wells Fargo paid to have their part of the building rebuilt, but Wells Fargo refused to pay to rebuild the other parts of the building occupied by other tenants.

They denied liability for damage and loss.

The landlord sued.

Was Wells Fargo liable?

The landlord said that Wells Fargo carried goods, and some goods were dangerous. It was up to Wells Fargo to have systems in place to check what they were carrying.

Wells Fargo said that it was impractical to open every crate to see what was inside. They had to take the word of their customers as to contents, although if they were suspicious they could demand the crate be opened. A customer who wanted to lie would lie.

The landlord said that he had suffered loss because of Wells Fargo’s activities, and he should be compensated for his loss. Wells Fargo said that they had done nothing negligent unlawful improper or unusual, and so should not be liable for utterly unexpected events. They said they had no public liability.

Wells Fargo said they were liable under the lease for damage to the property they occupied – which they had paid, but they said they were not generally liable.

The judgement

The court accepted that Wells Fargo had not been negligent, and held that Wells Fargo were not liable. The case is reported as:

PARROT v. WELLS, FARGO & CO. (1872) 82 U.S. 524, 21 L.Ed. , 206, 15 Wall. 524

Would this be good law today? In these hyper litigious times I do not know.