Thursday, October 22, 2009
Judge Capsizes $75,000 Award for Breach of Promise to Wed
By DAVID PATTERSON HATCH
As transcribed by Roger M. Grace
(The writer died in 1912. He authored numerous letters, published in three books, subsequent to his death, utilizing “automatic writing,” also known as “channeling.” The authenticity of these columns is as sure as the genuineness of the letters attributed to him. With respect to the award of damages he mentions in 1886—$75,000—that translates as $1.8 million in terms of 2008 U.S. dollars; the wealth of the defendant then, $6 million, would be $142 million these days.)
On June 30, 1886, I had my last contact with the action by Miss Louise Perkins against Mr. Elias “Lucky” Baldwin for breach of the promise to marry her. That was my last day as a judge of the Superior Court of the County of Santa Barbara.
As set forth here last week, the California Supreme Court had precluded me from ruling on the defendant’s motion for a new trial through the knowingly false representation by Mr. Baldwin’s lawyers that I was presiding over the case in the absence of a request to do so by either of the two judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Their petition to permanently restrain my further involvement with the case had been set for hearing on Aug. 2, but was rendered moot inasmuch as I had previously resigned my judicial office effective July 1.
The events which followed caused me keen disappointment.
None of Mr. Baldwin’s three lawyers who had presented prevaricatory twaddle to the Supreme Court of this State suffered a penalty for his transgression. In fact, one of them—Walter Van Dyke, Esq.—was elected to the Superior Court of Los Angeles County in 1888. I did, on various occasions, appear before him in my new role as a Los Angeles practitioner of the law. In 1898, he was elected to the California Supreme Court.
I had been prepared to rule on the motion for a new trial on June 30 of 1886. When it became known on that date that the Supreme Court would not relent and permit me to rule on the post-trial motion, the Honorable William A. Cheney of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County set a hearing on the motion for July 12. But one delay followed another. The case went from Judge Cheney to Judge Brunson to Judge Chaney.
At long last, Judge Cheney made a ruling, by written order, on March 14, 1887, nearly 14 months after the trial’s end. He granted the motion.
I cannot say, for I lack knowledge of the judge’s motivations, whether Judge Cheney truly believed in the correctness of his ruling that day, or whether great pressures had been exerted on him, and he ruled in a manner that was expedient for him. Mr. Baldwin had amassed a fortune of considerable magnitude, his assets, according to testimony, amounting to $6,000,000.
The jury had assessed damages at $75,000. Judge Cheney was, I assume, conscientious in surveying verdicts in such cases as reflected by appellate opinions, and accurate in setting forth in his order that “we find no verdict for damages so great as this in American reports, and but one referred to in the courts of England, in an action of this nature.” He wrote:
“At first information of the amount of the verdict of $75,000, anyone would instinctively pause and ask: ‘Why? This is an unusual amount; this is something far beyond experience, and why?’ ”
With theatrics, Judge Cheney declared:
“The fact that one WILL thus stop and consider the question, is an indication that the verdict has produced an unusual mental shock of some kind. What is it? It is a complete answer to say, it shocks the sense of justice; in other words, it SEEMS excessive.”
Does it, indeed? I was not cognizant at the time of any cry by the populace that the award was an outrageous one.
The award might well have been of an unprecedented size. But the wealth of the defendant might also have been unprecedented among those sued for breach of a promise to marry, and where the case went up on appeal.
It might well be supposed that men of far less means than Mr. Baldwin had staved off such actions by simply buying their peace. Yet, Mr. Baldwin, for whatever perverse reason, permitted himself to be subjected to the indignity of having to recite on the witness stand his various encounters with the plaintiff by which he gained carnal knowledge of her.
It cannot be doubted that the greater the financial assets of a defendant in a breach-of-promise case who is found liable, the greater will be the monetary damage to the jilted victim. The young Miss Perkins had been lured into believing she would share with the aging Mr. Baldwin in his estate, one of massive proportion. Through his breach, she was deprived of the promised benefit. Damages were assessed by the jury at an amount that was approximately 1 percent of the defendant’s holdings. I cannot conclude that this “shocks the sense of justice.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company