10 Weird and Wonderful Cases Every Law Student Should Know About
One of the most enjoyable things about studying Law is the sheer strangeness of some of the cases you’ll encounter.
You might think that cases involving nuisance would just be neighbours with their music turned up too loud, or contract law would just be about businesspeople trying to get one over on each other in a deal, but it can be so much more odd and so much more fun than this. Often, the really bizarre cases are the ones you’ll end up studying, too, as they are the ones that legislation didn’t plan for and that raised questions and issues that hadn’t come up previously.
In this article, we look at some of the funniest, oddest and most entertaining cases you’re likely to come across at the start of a Law degree – we hope it whets your appetite for more.
1. Miller v Jackson
On the face of it, this case doesn’t seem that exciting. The Millers moved house next to a cricket pitch, and complained about the nuisance of the cricketers playing and cricket balls landing in their back garden. They went to court to try to prevent cricket being played there. They were turned down.
But all the same, this case is one where virtually every Law student can quote at least some of the judgment. It opens, “In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in County Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well…” and continues in a similar vein, with the judge, Lord Denning, wondering if the cattle that grazed there before houses were built objected to the cricket.
The final line of the Wikipedia entry on the case provides an equally enjoyable conclusion: “Not long after the case, the Millers moved house.”
2. Carlill v the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co.
At the heart of this case is the question of what constitutes a contract (something that we’ll return to later in this list). Back in 1891, Britain was at the tail end of a flu pandemic that killed around a million people worldwide, and Carbolic Smoke Balls were a quack remedy to avoid getting the flu. It involved putting a tube up your nose, which was attached to a rubber ball filled with carbolic acid, which would cause your nose to run. So confident were the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company in the quality of their product that they offered a £100 reward to anyone who used a Carbolic Smoke Ball regularly and subsequently got the flu – and it’s worth bearing in mind that £100 in 1981 is the equivalent of around £11,500 in today’s money.
Mrs Carlill used the Carbolic Smoke Ball religiously, and came down with the flu all the same. The Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. had said in their advertisements, “£100 reward will be paid by the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company to any person who contracts the increasing epidemic influenza colds, or any disease caused by taking cold, after having used the ball three times daily for two weeks” and also added, “£1000 is deposited with the Alliance Bank, Regent Street, showing our sincerity in the matter” but when Mrs Carlill requested her money, they refused to pay up. The court held that they had entered into a valid contract with Mrs Carlill, and ordered them to hand over the money.
3. Leonard v PepsiCo
In 1999, Pepsi ran an advert in the USA about a points scheme in which a teenager shows up in a Harrier jump jet, with the text: “HARRIER FIGHTER 7,000,000 PEPSI POINTS”. An enterprising 21-year-old saw that points could be bought for 10c each, and sent in a cheque for $700,008.50 to gain the required 7,000,000 points. When Pepsi refused to let him claim a jet worth roughly $23 million, he took them to court for breach of contract.
Disappointingly, Leonard’s claim was rejected on the basis that no one could reasonably take the advert’s offer seriously. But the court’s observations make for a great source of deadpan humour, with comments such as “the callow youth featured in the commercial is a highly improbable pilot, one who could barely be trusted with the keys to his parents’ car, much less the prize aircraft of the United States Marine Corps.”
4. Proctor & Gamble v HM Revenue & Customs
In the UK, VAT is a tax, currently set at 20%, charged on products that are considered luxuries – so there’s no VAT on apples, milk, or tea, but there is on ice cream, cake decorations, cereal bars, and – crucially – crisps. This was a problem for Proctor & Gamble, producers of Pringles, who would rather not have had to pay a tax bill of around £100m if Pringles were considered crisps.
How could Pringles not be crisps? Well, they’re described on the packaging as a “savoury snack”, and in 2008 a judge ruled that since the type of Pringles in question were only 3% potato flour (and 39% vegetable oil) they couldn’t be said to be “made of potato flour”, and therefore, they weren’t crisps. What they were instead is debatable – but VAT-free, anyway. But in 2009, HMRC appealed and despite Proctor & Gamble’s strenuous arguments that there’s nothing crisp-like about a Pringle, HMRC won and the Pringle was ruled to be a crisp after all.
5. Re A (conjoined twins)
In the second half of this list, we look at some of the more unpleasant (though still odd) cases that the law has had to address.
Re A was a case in England in 2001, where two twins – Gracie and Rosie – were born joined at the abdomen, with Rosie dependent on Gracie to oxygenate her blood. If surgically separated, Gracie had a strong likelihood of survival, but Rosie would die. But if left conjoined, both twins were unlikely to see their first birthdays.
Initially, a judge had ruled that separating the twins would not be murder, but “passive euthanasia”, although the Court of Appeal rejected this ruling. Instead, they argued that the defence of necessity could be used, and that the surgeon would not have mens rea (criminal intent implying culpability) for murder, as he would be carrying out the operation to save Gracie rather than kill Rosie. The operation went ahead, and Gracie is now a teenager who aspires to become a doctor herself.
6. R v Dudley and Stephens
Necessity isn’t always an adequate defence against murder, and that was vividly shown in the case of R v Dudley and Stephens. In 1884, Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker were shipwrecked and adrift in a lifeboat 700 miles from the nearest land with no freshwater and only two tins of turnips to eat. This was on the 5th July. By 17th July, they had eaten the turnips and the entirety of a turtle they had managed to catch, and by 24th July, Parker had slipped into a coma. Realising there was no other way to survive, Dudley and Stephens killed Parker, and the three remaining men (including Brooks) resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. On the 29th of July, they were rescued.
When the case was brought to trial, public opinion was highly sympathetic to Dudley and Stephens, to the extent that their defence was paid for by public opinion. At the same time, the judiciary wanted it established that necessity was not a defence for murder. The ultimate outcome of the case was something of a compromise: Dudley and Stephens were convicted of murder, but sentenced to just 6 months in prison.
7. Hollywood Silver Fox Farm v Emmett
If you’ve ever been irritated by a neighbour who deliberately turned their music up to annoy you, you have the Hollywood Silver Fox Farm to thank for the fact that you’re in the right and they’re in the wrong.
But in this case, it wasn’t about loud music. The neighbour, Emmett, had fallen out with the owners of the Hollywood Silver Fox Farm, and tried to disrupt their business of breeding silver foxes for the fur industry. Silver foxes are extremely nervy creatures and are likely to miscarry if disturbed when pregnant, so Emmett got his son to fire a gun repeatedly on the border between his land and the fox farm’s breeding pens, in order to upset the foxes and damage his neighbour’s business. In court, Emmett defended his actions by saying the foxes were unusually sensitive and he had the right to use his land in a reasonable manner. But the court ruled that no one has “the absolute right to create noises upon his own land, because any right which the law gives him is qualified by the condition that it must not be exercised to the nuisance of his neighbours”. And thank goodness for that.
8. R v Thabo-Meli
If you thought R v Dudley and Stephens was gruesome, you might want to skip past this one!
In 1954, four men in a criminal gang decided to commit a murder and make it look like an accident. They brought their victim to a hut, got him heavily drunk, and hit him around the head with the intent of killing him. Believing they had killed him (although they had only knocked him unconscious), they threw his body over a cliff. He survived that, too (!), but later died of exposure.
To commit murder, you need to have a mens rea (guilty mind) and actus reus (guilty deed) at the same time – killing someone when you didn’t intend to isn’t murder, and thinking of killing someone but not doing it isn’t murder either. In court, the gang argued that they had intended to kill him in the hut, and actually killed him by leaving him exposed to the elements at the base of the cliff – but that mens rea and actus reus had not happened at the same time – in much the same way as if you thought of your friend “I wish he were dead!” and then accidentally dropped a piano on them two months later, the earlier thought wouldn’t make the accident count as murder. But if this seems absurd, be reassured – the ruling said that it was all part of the same act, and found them guilty of murder.
9. R v Rabey
Wayne Rabey was a 20-year-old geology student in Canada in 1980, who was interested in a female student in his class. So far, so much like normal university life. But when they were studying together, Rabey found a letter than the woman had written to a friend of hers, where she said that Rabey “bugged” her, and described him as “nothing”, while also mentioning that she was interested in someone else.
When Rabey met her in the corridor later that day, he asked her what she thought of him. She told him she saw him as a friend, and he attacked her and hit her with a rock sample (being a geology student, he had this to hand). At the trial, he claimed that he had suffered such a psychological blow that he had slipped into a state of automatism, but that this was a one-off and wasn’t likely to happen again; it was “non-insane automatism”. The court held – and the Supreme Court, following an appeal, agreed – that if he had entered a dissociative state, this was “insane automatism” requiring psychological treatment, and non-insane automatism wouldn’t count as a defence – presumably to the relief of fellow geology students everywhere.
10. Presho v Doohan
In the 1970s, Neville Presho, an engineer, visited the remote Tory Island off the north-west coast of Ireland and fell so deeply in love with it that he gave up his career to make a film about life there. In 1982, he bought a house on the island, though he then settled down in New Zealand. Ten years later, he received a request to buy the house. The prospective buyer offered just a seventh of the price that Presho had asked, so he turned the offer down. In 1994, he received a letter from the local council saying that storm damage had left his house in a dangerous state (which seemed unlikely given its metre-thick stone walls), so he went to visit the island and see. He arrived to find his house had vanished without a trace – and the hotel opposite had extended its car park on to the land where the house had once stood. The disappearance of the house seemed so bizarre that Presho suffered a mental breakdown.
After long investigation, it transpired that the house had burned down in an arson attack. Presho took the owner of the hotel, Patrick Doohan, to court, and though the arson could not be proven to have been carried out by Doohan, Presho was awarded damages for trespass and interference, as Doohan could be shown to be responsible for removing the remains of the house and had gained from its destruction. In 2013, Presho said, “The island is lovely. What happened on the island with the house is very sad and it has caused lots of problems for me. But at the end of the day, you just have to forgive everybody, because you can’t hang on to everything.”