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Watkins’ Case

Court of Common Pleas
Y.B.Hil. 3 Hen. 6, f. 36, pl. 33 (1425)


W.B. (plaintiff) contracted to have Watkins (defendant) construct a mill. Watkins did not complete the mill on time, and W.B. brought a writ of trespass on the case (writ of trespass) for damages in tort of 10 marks. Watkins’ attorney, Rolfe, argued that W.B. had failed to state a claim because a contract price for the construction of the mill was never declared. Chief Justice Babington argued that a tort could result from a breach of contract and that a writ of trespass was proper. Babington suggested that a writ of trespass might be brought against an attorney who acted negligently and lost a client’s property or a roofer who did not complete a roof on time and allowed the homeowner’s property to be damaged by rain. Justice Martin argued that a writ of covenant was the proper cause of action for nonfeasance, or a defendant’s failure to perform under a contract. Further, Martin indicated that a tort could only be caused by a breach of contract for misfeasance, meaning the defendant performed badly under the contract. As an example, Martin argued that a writ of trespass could be brought against a farrier (a specialist in hoof care) who contracted to shoe a horse, but lamed the animal instead. Martin asserted that allowing a writ of trespass in this case would give anyone the right to bring a writ of trespass for any breach of contract. Justice Cokayne indicated that it could be assumed that Watkins was to be paid under the contract and that a writ of trespass could be brought for nonfeasance under a contract. Cokayne argued that a writ of trespass would be proper against a ditch-digger who did not perform a contract to repair ditches, causing the property to flood by nonfeasance. Rolfe argued that W.B. told Watkins that the mill was no longer wanted, which W.B.’s attorney, Strangeways, denied. The issues were joined.

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