Coase’s four cases

Below is another extended excerpt (six paragraphs in all) from my latest work-in-progress “Coase’s pastoral parable” (footnotes omitted):

Among other things, Coase’s landmark social cost paper contains a careful and painstaking analysis of four English cases involving nuisance law: Sturges v. Bridgman, Cooke v. Forbes, Bryant v. Lefever, and Bass v. Gregory. The plaintiffs in these four nuisance cases sued their neighbors for damages and injunctive relief, but only two of the plaintiffs prevailed in court, while the other two lost. Why did the courts allow some harms to continue and enjoin others?

Before proceeding any further, however, I want to pose a much different question–a methodological query, to be more precise. In short, of all the millions of reported cases in the common law universe, why did Coase choose these four cases? As it happens, Coase may have decided to focus on these particular cases for several reasons:

1. Business narratives. First off, Coase’s social cost paper is primarily “concerned with those activities of business firms [that] have harmful effects on others,” so Coase needs cases involving business activities. As it happens, Coase’s “four actual cases” feature a wide variety of business firms, including a noisy confectioner, a carpet weaver, a gas works, and a pub or “public house.”

2. Homage to Arnold Plant. Secondly, Coase may have already been familiar with these four cases since his student days at the London School of Economics, where Coase attended a seminar on industrial law taught by Arnold Plant [pictured below] during the 1930-31 academic year.

3. Hard cases. Thirdly, these are all “hard cases” in the Dworkian or jurisprudential sense; that is, plausible legal arguments are available to both sides in each of these legal disputes.

But the most important feature of these particular cases–the main reason why Coase decided to devote extra time and space to them–is the reciprocal nature of the harms alleged in them: the plaintiff, the party alleging the injury, is just as responsible for the harm caused as the defendantis, the party being sued for causing the injury.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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