R. V. Medley and Others

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R. V. Medley and Others

Legal decision

By: The English Reports

Date: 1834

Source: "R. v. Medley and others" in Carrington and Payne. The English Reports. London: 1834, 292.

About the Author: The reported text of the case of R. v. Medley and others was not authored, in the sense of being created by a writer. In 1834, the English Reports, the digest of legal decisions where the Medley case was first published, was the oldest continuous legal reporting service in the world. The short form "C.&P." as set out below the title of the case stands for Carrington and Payne, the editors of the English Reports between 1823 and 1841. In 1865, the English Reports were subsumed into a new legal reporting service known as the Law Reports, which became one of the world's most comprehensive legal databases, a publication maintained to this day under the authority of the Chief Justice of England. A separate legal reporting service commenced in 1936 known as the All England Reports, also digested the Medley case, and it is for this reason that both citations are mentioned.


The city of London, England, in 1834, the setting for the incident that led to the landmark Medley prosecution, was the world's largest and most dynamic city. The Industrial Revolution begun in the eighteenth century had carried with it remarkable societal changes and contrasts in the English cities. The hereditary privileged English classes were now rivaled in wealth and influence by a rising and prosperous middle class of merchants and business people. The graceful building construction that had taken place in London during the English Restoration and Georgian periods was commonly situated not far from sprawling, teeming slums that housed a segment of the population whose existence was famously chronicled by Charles Dickens. There was little legal protection for those on the margins of society.

The English legal system prior to 1834 had no particular recognition of the now well-ordered concepts of corporate responsibility and citizenship, environmental protection or public welfare laws. Companies that had grown quickly in the face of the technological advances precipitated by the development of commercial steam power were accustomed to acting in their best interests, with no regard for any perceived rights of others—"the law of the jungle" fairly represented the notion of corporate responsibility.

Further, the common law of England at the time reflected the historic notion, springing from Anglican Christian beliefs, that criminal responsibility for any act required proof that there existed an intent to commit the act in question. A lack of care on the part of a wrongdoer, as opposed to an intentional act, was not sufficient in England to establish a criminal wrong.

In 1834, the Equitable Gas Company operated a gas producing works on the shores of the River Thames in east London. As it had done on numerous occasions in the months before, defective machinery in the plant did not properly contain coal tar sludge, and a large quantity of this noxious overflow spilled into the river. A contemporaneous media report described the discharge as if it "smelt ready to knock anybody down." The sludge polluted the Thames in the vicinity of the Equitable plant to such an extent that fish were killed and local fisherman were deprived of their living for a considerable period. As a news report commented at the time, there was a public outcry, and as a result the directors and a number of employees of Equitable Gas were charged with criminal negligence in the discharge of this waste from the plant.

At trial, the directors claimed, consistent with the general understanding of the law at that time, that they did not order, participate in, or otherwise approve of the discharge of the coal tar. Therefore, they lacked the necessary criminal intent known as mens rea ("guilty mind"), to have committed any crime.

Medley, the Equitable Gas chairman, the deputy chairman, and two employees were convicted on the basis that so long as they conferred authority to others to actually operate the plant, they were morally responsible and in law guilty. The law of strict liability, and its companion, the public welfare prosecution, was born.


"Defendants unlawfully and injuriously conveyed great quantities of filthy, noxious, unwholesome and deleterious liquids, matters, scum and refuse into the river Thames, whereby the waters became charged and impregnated with the said liquid and became corrupted and insalubrious and unfit for the use of his Majesty's subjects … People who supported themselves and their families by catching and selling fish were deprived of their employment and reduced to great poverty and distress; (all) to the common nuisance and grievous injury of his Majesty's subjects, to the evil example, and against the peace."

The trial proceeded before a High Court judge and jury on February 7, 1834. After the evidence was presented to the jury, they received their instructions on how to deal with the evidence from the trial judge, then Chief Justice Denman, who instructed the jury as follows:

"With respect to fishermen being thrown out of work, I ought to lose no time in informing you that will not of itself be ground for an indictment, as if it were sufficient every successful speculation in trade might be the subject of a prosecution … The words of the indictment convey the law upon the subject as well as any person sitting here can do. The question will be, whether there has been a noxious and deleterious ingredient conveyed into the river, whereby the water has been corrupted and rendered unfit for use; and if there has been, then whether, in the concluding words of the indictment, it was to the common nuisance of the king's subjects. If you think that this has been done, and that it was conveyed from the premises of the defendants then you will find them guilty …

The second question you will have to consider will be, which of the defendants are guilty of the nuisance … It is said that the directors were ignorant of what had been done. In my judgment that makes no difference; provided that you think that they gave authority to the plant superintendent to conduct the works they will be answerable. It seems to me both common sense and law that, if a person for their own advantage employ servants to conduct works, they must be answerable for what is done by those servants … In the present case you will say whether these particular individuals have done an act to the common nuisance of the king's subjects."


The jury found Medley, the Chairman of Equitable Gas, the deputy chairman, plant superintendent, and plant engineer guilty. The Court imposed fines on the individual defendants ranging from ten to twenty-five British pounds each (accounting for inflation, a twenty-five-pound fine is roughly equivalent to a one thousand dollar penalty today).

In R. v. Medley and others, Medley represented a dramatic first in the laws of England regarding the power and the legal ability of the state to prosecute careless—as opposed to intentional—wrongdoers. Medley quickly became a well-established precedent in similar prosecutions commenced both in England as well as in various jurisdictions in the United States.

Medley's first notable application as a precedent was in the English case of Regina v. Stephens, where a quarry owner was successfully prosecuted for the obstruction of a public waterway with waste and excess rock mined from his quarry operations. It was established at trial that Stephens at no time personally oversaw the day-to-day operations of the quarry, but consistent with the theories advanced in Medley, he was deemed accountable. The Latin expression and civil law principle, respondeat superior ("let the master answer"), was applied in the Stephens case and became a short-form expression of how liability was assessed against company owners and directors in many legal decisions that followed. It was not a valid defense for companies, in essence, to lay responsibility entirely on the shoulders of those who were carrying out their directives as employers to their employees.

U.S. state courts also began to apply the principles of the Medley case, including its public welfare sentiments and the doctrine of respondeat superior. As the evolving American legal system moved from the 1860s and into the latter nineteenth century, there were decisions in a line of similar cases, including a number in the U.S. Supreme Court, that culminated in the Dotterweich decision of 1943, a case dealing with the duty of care imposed on a pharmaceutical company in the sale of rebranded drugs.

Medley is also an early example of what is now popularly called "judicial activism," the notion that a court can act in the absence of a stated law to advance the common good.



"R. v. Medley and others" in All England Reports. London: 1824–1834, 123.

Sopinka, John, Sidney N. Lederman, and Alan W. Bryant. The Law of Evidence. Toronto: Butterworths, 1994.

Web sites

"CALI Lessons Subject List—Torts." The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. 〈http://www2.cali.org/index.php?fuseaction=lessons.subjectlist&cat=TRT〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

Kovarik, William. "Environmental History Timeline." 〈http://www.radford.edu/∼wkovarik/envhist/〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

"Legal Electronic Document Archive Home Page." Harvard Law Review. 〈http://leda.law.harvard.edu/leda/〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).