Osborne v. McMasters – Case Brief

Osborne v. McMasters, 40 Minn. 103, 41 N.W. 543 (Minn. 1889).

Facts: Osborne (P) purchased a mislabeled deadly poison from McMasters’ (D) drugstore. The poison was not properly labeled as required by statute. Osborne died after consuming the poison and her estate sued, contending that the drugstore was in breach of its statutorily imposed duty and was therefore negligent. McMasters asserted that it had no common law duty to label the poison properly and that any failure to label as required by statute was not conclusive evidence of negligence. The trial court entered judgment in favor of Osborne and McMasters appealed.

Issue: Under what circumstances is a violation of a duty imposed by statute negligence per se?

Holding and Rule: If a statute imposes upon any person a specific duty for the protection or benefit of others, and a person neglects to perform that duty, he is liable to those for whose protection or benefit it was imposed for any injuries of the character which the statute was designed to protect that proximately arise from that neglect. A statute establishes a fixed standard by which the fact of negligence may be determined. The court held that it is immaterial whether a duty is imposed by the common law or by statute, and the measure of a legal duty may be fixed by either statute or common law or both. The court held that under prevailing law a violation of the statutory duty would be negligence per se.

Disposition: Judgment for P affirmed.

Notes: Mere violation of a statutory duty is not sufficient to impose liability. Negligence per se also requires proof of proximate cause and damages. The minority rule is that violation of a statute merely creates a rebuttable presumption or mere evidence of negligence. Furthermore, mere compliance with a statute is not sufficient to relieve a party of liability. Liability can be established by breach of a duty arising under either the common law or statute or both. Generally there is no doctrine of “reasonableness per se”.

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