141 U.S. 250 (1891), Union Pac. R. Co. v. Botsford

Citation:141 U.S. 250, 11 S.Ct. 1000, 35 L.Ed. 734
Case Date:May 25, 1891
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 250

141 U.S. 250 (1891)

11 S.Ct. 1000, 35 L.Ed. 734




United States Supreme Court.

May 25, 1891

[11 S.Ct. 1001] In error to the circuit court of the United States for the district of Indiana.

The original action was by Clara L. Botsford against the Union Pacific Railway Company for negligence in the construction and care of an upper berth in a sleeping-car in which she was a passenger, by reason of which the berth fell upon her head, bruising and wounding her, rupturing the membranes of the brain and spinal cord, and causing a concussion of the same, resulting in great suffering and pain to her in body and mind, and in permanent and increasing injuries. Answer, a general denial. Three days before the trial (as appeared by the defendant's bill of exceptions) 'the defendant moved the court for an order against the plaintiff, requiring her to submit to a surgical examination in the presence of her own surgeon and attorneys, if she desired their presence; it being proposed by the defendant that such examination should be made in manner not to expose the person of the plaintiff in any indelicate manner, the defendant at the time informing the court that such examination was necessary to enable a correct diagnosis of the case, and that without such examination the defendant would be with out any witnesses as to her condition. The court overruled said motion, and refused to make said order, upon the sole ground that this court had no legal right or power to make and enforce such order.' To this ruling and action of the court the defendant duly excepted, and after a trial, at which the plaintiff and other witnesses testified in her behalf, and which resulted in a verdict and judgment for her in the sum of $10,000, sued out this writ of error.

BREWER and BROWN, JJ., dissenting.


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John F. Dillon, for plaintiff in error.

A. C. Harris, for defendant in error.


Mr. Justice GRAY, after stating the facts as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

The single question presented by this record is whether in a civil action for an injury to the person, the court, on application of the defendant, and in advance of the trial may order the plaintiff without his or her consent, to submit to a surgical examination as to the extent of the injury sued for. We concur with the circuit court in holding that it had no legal right or power to make and enforce such an order. No right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others, unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law. As well said by Judge Cooley: 'The right to one's person may be said to be a right of complete immunity; to be let alone.' Cooley, Torts, 29. For instance, not only wearing apparel, but a watch or a jewel, worn on the person, is, for the time being, privileged from being taken under distress for rent, or attachment on mesne process or execution for debt, or writ of replevin. 3 Bl. Comm. 8; Sunbolf v. Alford, 3 Mees, & W. 248, 253, 254;

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Mack v. Parks, 8 Gray, 517; Maxham v. Day, 16 Gray, 213. The inviolability of the person is as much invaded by a compulsory stripping and exposure as by a blow. To compel any one, and especially a woman, to lay bare the body, or to submit it to the touch of a stranger, without lawful authority, is an indignity, an assault, and a trespass; and no order of process, commanding such an exposure or submission, was ever known to the common law in the administration of justice between individuals, except in a very small number of cases, based upon special reasons, and upon ancient practice, coming down from ruder ages, now mostly obsolete in England, and never, so far as we are a ware, introduced into this country. In former times, the English courts of common law might, if they saw fit, try by inspection or examination, without the aid of a jury, the question of the infancy or of the identity of a party; or, on an appeal of mayhem, the issue of mayhem or no mayhem; and, in an action of trespass for mayhem, or for an atrocious battery, might after a verdict for the plaintiff, and on his motion, and upon their own inspection of the wound, super visum vulneris, increase the damages at their discretion. In each of those exceptional cases, as Blackstone tells us, 'it is not thought necessary to summon a jury to decide it,' because 'the fact, from its nature, must be evident to the court, either from ocular demonstration or other irrefragable proof;' and therefore, 'the law departs from its usual resort, the verdict of twelve men and relies on the judgment of the court alone.' The inspection was not had for the purpose of submitting the result to the jury, but the question was thought too easy of decision to need submission to a jury at all. 3 Bl. Comm. 331-333. The authority of courts of divorce, in determining a question of impotence as affecting the validity of a marriage, to order an inspection by surgeons of the person of either party, rests upon the interest which the public, as well as the parties, have in the question of upholding or dissolving the marriage state, and upon the necessity of such evidence to enable the court to

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exercise its jurisdiction, and is derived from the civil and canon law, as administered in spiritual and ecclesiastical courts, not proceeding in any respect according to the course of the common law. Briggs v. Morgan 2 Hagg. Coust. 324, 3 Phillim. Ecc. 325; Devanbagh v. Devanbagh, 5 Paige, 554; Le Barron v. Le Barron 35 Vt. 365. [11 S.Ct. 1002] The writ de ventre inspiciendo, to ascertain whether a woman convicted of a capital crime was quick with child, was allowed by the common law, in order to guard against the taking of the life of an unborn child for the crime of the mother.

The only purpose, we believe, for which the like writ was allowed by the common law, in a matter of civil right, was to protect the rightful succession to the property of a deceased person against fraudulent claims of bastards, when a widow was suspected to feign herself with child in order to produce a supposititious heir to the estate, in which case the heir or devisee might have this writ to examine whether she was with child or not, and, if she was, to keep her under proper restraint till delivered. 1 Bl. Comm. 456; Bac. Abr. 'Bastard, A.' In cases of that class, the writ has been issued in England in quite recent times. In re Blakemore, 14 Law J. Ch. 336. But the learning and research of the counsel for the plaintiff in error have failed to produce an instance of its ever having been considered, in any part of the United States, as suited to the habits and condition of the people. So far as the books within our reach show, no order to inspect the body of a party in a personal action appears to have been made, or even moved for, in any of the English courts of common law, at any period of their history. The most analogous cases in England that have come under our notice are two in the common bench, in each of which an order for the inspection of a building was asked for in an action for work and labor done thereon, and was refused for want of power in the court to make or enforce it. In one of them, decided in 1838, counsel moved for an order that the...

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