Thomas v. Winchester, 1852

Professor Stewart Sterk highlighted this case in There Shall Be a Court of Appeals, writing that “In New York, and elsewhere, liability for harm caused by defective product started as a form of contract liability—liability for breach of warranty, however, the injured party had to demonstrate privity of contract with the manufacturer. The Court of Appeals was a leader in breaking down the privity requirement. The process started before the Civil War.”

“Winchester, a manufacturer of vegetable extracts, mislabeled a bottle of ‘extract of belladonna’ as ‘extract of dandelion.’ Belladonna was a poison, dandelion a harmless medicine. Winchester sold the mislabeled belladonna to a New York druggist who resold it to an upstate druggist. When Mrs. Thomas’ doctor prescribed dandelion for her illness, Mr. Thomas purchased the mislabeled bottle from the upstate druggist. When Mrs. Thomas ingested the poison, she became even sicker, and the Thomases brought an action against Winchester, alleging negligence in mislabeling the bottle.”

The case was tried in Madison County in December, 1849, before Justice Charles Mason. The jury returned a verdict against Winchester, for $800. A motion for a new trial was denied and Winchester appealed to the New York Court of Appeals.

Up to that point, the courts had held that the seller’s duty of care was to the immediate purchaser only. Here, the Court followed the common law process by distinguishing this case. In his opinion, Chief Judge Charles H. Ruggles stated: “In the present case, the sale of the poisonous article was made to a dealer in drugs, and not to a consumer; the injury, therefore, was not likely to fall on him, or on his vendee, who was also a dealer; but much more likely to be visited on a remote purchaser, as actually happened.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the court below and Winchester was held liable for the damage caused to Mrs. Thomas.

As Sterk notes, Judge Benjamin Cardozo considered this case “a landmark of the law.”

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