Scruggs v. Davis, 1859
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This case is about slaves or slavery.

Year: 1859
Citation: 40 Tenn. 664
Jurisdiction: Tennessee
Short Summary: Negligence charged for boat captain allowing captured runaway slave to jump overboard and drown himself
Law type:
Full name: William Scruggs v. Ammon L. Davis
Court: Tennessee Supreme Court


A white man and his captured runaway slave boarded a ship to Nashville to return home. The enslaved man's hands were bound, and he made known that he would rather die than return home to his enslaver's service upon boarding the ship. However, before the ship reached Nashville, the enslaved man had gone missing and was presumed to have thrown himself overboard. This presumption was confirmed as his body was soon found in the river with his hands still bound. There was some proof that the ship’s captain had temporarily untied the slave and set him to work but replaced the binds once the work was finished. The action in this case was for damages for the death of the enslaved person arising from the captain’s negligence in not properly watching over him. The Court held that common carriers are only liable for “ordinary neglect” in situations where they convey enslaved people for payment. However, the Court goes on to make a distinction between the legal status of enslaved people and other forms of property, at least in situations involving common carriers. The Court says that “the great rigor of the law, rendered necessary by necessity and sound policy, as applicable to common carriers of goods, and inanimate property, is there held not to apply to the case of negroes, who are intelligent beings, although a species of property. They have volition, and are endowed with reason and feelings, and cannot be safely stored away like a bale of goods, or a common package.” The Court goes on to hold that enslaved people occupy an intermediate legal property status between regular goods and passengers. The Court eventually held in favor of the defendant, the ship captain, because the master was on the ship along with the enslaved person he owned and thus the duty of care to prevent harm to the slave fell more upon the master himself than the ship captain.

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