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Law School Case Brief

Vosburg v. Putney (1890) - 78 WIS. 84, 47 N.W. 99 (1890)

Rule:

In an action for personal injuries to a minor, evidence of the pecuniary circumstances of his father was inadmissible; and the error of admitting such testimony is not rendered immaterial by the fact that the court did not instruct the jury that this element was to be considered in assessing damages.

Facts:

The parties were both students at the same high school. About a month prior to the incident, plaintiff injured student injured student had received an injury to his shin  which seemed to have healed. About a month after the incident, the injured student's shin was injured again after defendant fellow student slightly hit the injured student's shin with his toe. This injury resulted in the permanent loss the use of his leg. There was no proof of any other injury, and the medical testimony agreed that the touch or kick received by the injured student was the exciting cause of the injury. The trial court found the student liable for damages to the injured student. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin on two grounds: the trial court erred in permitting a medical expert to opine that the injury received was the direct result of being kicked in the shin by another classmate and the injured student's father should not have been allowed to testify as to the family lifestyle and economic condition. Defendant student sought review.

Issue:

Did the trial court err in admitting evidence of the pecuniary or financial circumstances of the father of plaintiff injured son, and also in allowing testimony by a physician as to the "exciting cause" of the son's leg injury, without a foundation having been laid for the question?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

Reversing the judgment, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial as a result of the two errors which occurred as asserted by the student. The Court held that the injured student was entitled to full compensation for his injury, no less and no more, whatever the pecuniary circumstances of his father were. The Court explained that it is sometimes proper to prove the pecuniary circumstances of the defendant; however, the Court emphasized that it has never heard of a case like this where it was deemed proper to prove the financial condition of the plaintiff or of his father. The plaintiff, if he recovered, was entitled to full compensation for his injury, no less and no more, whatever his pecuniary circumstances or those of his father.  InThe Court also held that no foundation for the expert's medical testimony was laid. 

The Court noted that this was "a very strange and extraordinary case.and extraordinary case" and that there was great uncertainty about the case. However, perfect certainty was not required. It was sufficient that it is the opinion of the medical witnesses that such a cause even might produce such a result under the peculiar circumstances, and that the jury had the right to find, from the evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom, that it did. 

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