So, a bunch of you chimed in with responses to the epic battle of Scotchman and Black-Face, which later became a lawsuit decided in part by Hunt-Berlin Coal Co. v. Paton, 202 S.W. 935 (Tenn. 1918). To quickly recap, a strapping young bloke named Paton saw fit to threaten poor Mr. Morehead with promises of imminent demise. I do believe his exact words were, “I will kill you,” repeated multiple times. Morehead, being the shrinking violet that he was, made a B-line in the opposite direction, only to be pursued by Paton. There was an unfortunate miscommunication of body language that resulted in Paton pushing up daisies and Morehead staring down a jury of his supposed peers. Turns out that what Morehead saw as a pistol was actually a “sealing iron.” Since I can barely wield a hammer with much authority, I’d love for someone to tell me what a sealing iron is… My original post included a poll, which many of you were awesome enough to actually indulge. I asked whether Morehouse was criminally guilty, civilly liable, or home free. I also asked about potential liability for his employer, since this little brouhaha erupted at work. The overwhelming majority (over 75%) voted that Morehouse would live out the rest of his days guilty-verdict-free and civil-judgment-free. So what’s the answer???
BTW, right now I’ve got this incurable verbal tick that keeps forcing me to change this guy’s name from Morehead to Morehouse. That’s the school my best friend attended. It’s stuck in my head for some reason, like when Sarah Palin kept saying “Senator O’Biden.” Can you tell I have attention deficit issues? Anyway…
The short answer is, Morehead is probably in good shape. The longer answer (as with all legal questions) is, well, maybe. Kinda, sorta. Probably. But it depends. In the trial court, Mr. Paton’s estate actually won (Round 1). It was awarded civil damages from both Morehead and Morehead’s employer, the coal company. So Morehead said “oh know he di’n’t” and promptly made his case to the Court of Appeals (Round 2). The COA reversed, but only as to the coal company. It said the coal company should have been off the hook, but Morehouse was properly slapped with a judgment.
Well, then everybody was perturbed, so they all appealed one mo’ time. Now they’re off to the big dogs: Tennessee Supreme Court (Round 3). Incidentally, Paton, on his death-bed at the hospital, admitted to police only that he had “applied vile epithets to Morehead,” which miiiiiiiiiight have slightly exacerbated the brouhaha. Next time someone pisses you off, just threaten to “apply vile epithets” to them, and see what they say. Back to the Supremes.
So, His Highness the Honorable Justice [first name unknown] Williams reached the following conclusions: The employer (coal company) was off the hook, because whatever shenanigans arose between Morehouse and Paton had nothing to do with the bossman. After all, “Morehead was not a guard, and his use of force was something that his employer cannot be held to have fairly had in anticipation.” Paton at 938. As to Morehead’s self-defense claim, the Court gives us this useful reminder:
The law of self-defense applicable in a civil suit is the same as that governing in criminal prosecutions, with the exception that in a civil action the cause must be decided on a preponderance of testimony, whereas in a criminal prosecution the defendant is entitled to the benefit of a reasonable doubt in respect to the defense….
However, it made another distinction between self-defense in the civil and criminal contexts. “In an action to recover damages for wrongful death due to an intentional act,” which by definition includes shooting someone in self-defense, “the burden of proof is on the plaintiff [the shooting ‘victim’ / alleged attacker] first to establish his case by sufficient proof; but when there is a plea of self-defense the burden of proof is on the defendant [the person who resorted to deadly force in self-defense] to sustain the plea.” In other words, the prosecution has to do all the work in a criminal trial, but in a civil trial, proving self-defense is all on you, the self-defender. Court says anything less would be “obnoxious to a wise and fair administration of justice.” Paton at 948.
I’m wrapping up, I swear. Almost done.
Here’s the somewhat scary part for my CCW homies out there. The Supreme Court held that “the jury was warranted in finding that the sealing iron did not so nearly resemble a pistol as to mislead Morehead.” Paton at 938. The Court went on to speculate that “the jury may have drawn the inference that Morehead saw Paton at work with that tool at the meter just prior to the shooting,” thus impeaching the theory that Morehead reasonably thought the tool was in fact a gun. The result: “Under the facts [of this case,] the validity of the plea of self-defense was for the jury; and we cannot say that there was no evidence to support its finding of liability on Morehead’s part.” Id.
If the case had ended there, Morehead would be up a creek. But it just so happens that the trial court left out some important words in the jury instructions, which might have misled the jury on the exact definition of self-defense. So, on that little technicality, Morehead’s “pay up now” verdict was tossed out and the whole case went back down to be trial a second time. No idea what happened after that (most likely an out-of-court settlement).
Moral of the Story:
Actually I’ve got to take my mom to hear some live blues and eat some barbecue for her birthday. So for now, you tell me what the moral of the story is! I’ll chime in a bit later. If anyone is interested in reading the whole opinion in this case, here it is. Enjoy!