Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Classic Case Corner is an occasional series of posts highlighting staples of the Contracts curriculum and resources related to them. Our motto for CCC is, "If it's new to you, then it's new... even if it's old."
Some cases owe their fame in the law school curriculum, in part, to unusual factual details--consider the hairy hand of Hawkins v. McGee as one prominent example. Today's highlight, Kirksey v. Kirksey, 8 Ala. 131 (Ala. 1845), in contrast, became famous despite, or more likely because of, its factual obscurity.
In less than 550 words, Kirksey tells the story of the widowed "Dear Sister Antillico" who was invited by her brother-in-law to abandon her home based on this promise: "If you will come down and see me, I will let you have a place to raise your family, and I have more open land than I can tend; and on the account of your situation, and that of your family, I feel like I want you and the children to do well.” Two years later, the brother-in-law "notified ['Sister Antillico'] to remove, and put her in a house, not comfortable, in the woods, which he afterwards required her to leave." The Alabama Supreme Court reversed the trial court's verdict for the widow, holding that the brother-in-law's promise was "a mere gratuity, and that an action will not lie for its breach." The brief opinion sheds no great light on the facts beyond the few stated, and it ultimately allows for a great deal of pedagogical flexibility in discussing the doctrine of consideration or the modern availability of promissory estoppel as a substitute.
Professors William Casto (Texas Tech) and Val Ricks (South Texas) filled the information gap and dispelled the much of the surface mystery in their fantastic article, 'Dear Sister Antillico . . .': The Story of Kirksey v. Kirksey, which covers not only the historical background of the case and its litigation, but also the story of how Samuel Williston catapulted a little-known case to its current prominence.
Casto and Ricks' abstract elaborates more on the treasure-trove of facts to be found in the 77-pages of their 2006 Georgetown Law Journal article:
Second, Kirksey is so ordinary - why is it taught at all? It announces no new doctrine. It explains no doctrine. It's author's style is not impressive, and his reputation is obscure. Today courts might reach the opposite result. Few courts have cited Kirksey, and none since 1949.
We resolve these puzzles. First, we answer all the questions raised by the facts. We were surprised by the answers and suggest that no one who has taught the case has had any idea what actually happened. Second, we explain how Kirksey gained fame. Briefly, Williston changed his mind about the case ("right" to "wrong"), and in the process talked about Kirksey so much that it became embedded in his teaching, his treatise, his mind, and his students' minds - until the case became one of contract law teaching's primary sources. Ironically, Williston's change of mind, the reason for the case's rise to fame (the second puzzle), was made possible by the case's ambiguity (the first).