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The lawsuits that changed the way we think

31st December 2014

From the frivolous to the historic, lawsuits continue to mark points in history where views may have changed or new inventions or the introduction of something forces the law to revaluate what we see as right and wrong.

Whether you are a law student or are between temporary legal jobs in London, it is important to know and understand certain law suits in history as well as modern court cases that impact on the way the law works.

These court cases are also of high interest to the general public as well as those looking for permanent legal recruitment; they impact on each individual and are as much a part of history as the human race is as a whole. Here we note some of the most important court cases in history as well as the more frivolous or modern lawsuits that have marked contemporary steps forward in the law.

Carlill V Carbolic Smoke Ball Co

First is a case that all law students will be aware of. In addition to being the namesake of the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. that featured in this previous article, it is also the name of a famous case in British history. The case is an English contract law decision by the Court of Appeal that was made in December 1892.

The case surrounds the flu remedy the ‘carbolic smoke ball’ made by the manufacturer the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company. The company was so sure of its product that it advertised that £100 would be awarded to any person who contracted the influenza colds, which was a worrying flu pandemic at the time. Mrs Louisa Elizabeth Carlill used the product, that took the form of a rubber ball filled with carbolic acid, or phenol, and used it three times a day for close to two months prior to contracting the flu. She claimed the £100, which was a considerable sum of money at the time, and brought the claim to court when the company refused to pay out saying that the advertised customer contract was not serious. The company, who was represented by HH Asquith, lost its argument.

Doudet V Il Giardino restaurant

More recently, in a case that brought much discussion on the freedom of speech via the internet, a blogger was sued by a French restaurant after she published a scathing review online. The blogger in question, Caroline Doudet, was ordered by a French judge to pay damages and change the title of her review. The case was particularly interesting as the restaurant argued that the review was principally damaging as its title featured the name of the restaurant and therefore ranked highly in Google searches of the restaurant Il Giardino, as stated in this BBC article.

Hall and Preddy V Chymorvah private hotel

Another contemporary case brought to light issues of sexual orientation equality. A hotel in Cornwall, run by devout Christians, refused a male gay couple to share a room; the couple later sued the hotel owners under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 as stated in this article. The owners of the Chymorvah private hotel in Cornwall argued that they did not allow couples of all sexual orientation to share a room unmarried as they did not believe in sex before marriage, the judge at Bristol County Court, however, ruled that the couple acted unlawfully. The case is said to be likely to provide further protection for gay couples from discrimination in the UK.

Liebeck V McDonald’s

In perhaps one of the most famous, seemingly frivolous court cases, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.86 million after suffering third-degree burns from spilling her McDonald’s coffee. Critics dismissed Liebeck’s 1994 case as trivial, yet the New Mexico civil jury decided to award Ms Liebeck compensatory damages and ordered McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses in which she was forced to undergo skin grafting and eight days of hospitalization.

Liebeck’s attorney argued that the coffee severed at McDonald’s restaurants, at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C), was defective and at such a temperature was more likely to cause injury than what was served at any other establishment.

Sir Edward Coke V James I

Finally, in perhaps one of the most important British cases, Sir Edward Coke, who was to be appointed Chief Justice of the King's Bench, worked to limit royal power in the 17th century. As a judge, Coke argued that Common Law was superior to any law laid down by ecclesiastical or prerogative courts. This led to King James I’s vendetta in which he was insufferably angered that a man in such a position in the law could believe that common law was superior to that of the king.

After Charles I took over from his father in power, his challengers used the Magna Carta, the document that established the principle that everyone was subject to the law, including the king, to reinforce the power of common law and regulate the use of royal authority. Sir Coke is famously quoted saying, ‘Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign’.

Image Credits: Ben Sutherland (, Carbolic Smoke Ball Co., Mike Mozart (