PRISCILLA D. WEBSTER v. BLUE SHIP TEA ROOM, INC.
SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS 347 MASS. 421, 198 N.E.2D 309 (1964)
A restaurant patron who ordered seafood chowder and choked on a fishbone brought this case. The plaintiff maintained that she would not have reasonably expected to find a bone in the chowder. At the trial, a jury found for Ms. Webster. The Blue Ship Tea Room, the defendant, appealed the case on the basis of the legal interpretation of the implied warranty of merchantability. The appellate decision below has become a classic in American jurisprudential reasoning.
JUDGE REARDONâ€‚. . . On Saturday, April 25, 1959, about 1 p.m., the plaintiff, accompanied by her sister and her aunt, entered the Blue Ship Tea Room operated by the defendant. The group was seated at a table and supplied with menus.
This restaurant, which the plaintiff characterized as â€œquaint,â€ was located in Boston â€œon the third floor of an old building on T Wharf which overlooks the ocean.â€
The plaintiff, who had been born and brought up in New England (a fact of some consequence), ordered clam chowder and crabmeat salad. Within a few minutes she received tidings to the effect that â€œthere was no more clam chowder,â€ whereupon she ordered a cup of fish chowder. Presently, there was set before her â€œa small bowl of fish chowder.â€ She had previously enjoyed a breakfast about 9 a.m. which had given her no difficulty. â€œThe fish chowder contained haddock, potatoes, milk, water and seasoning. The chowder was milky in color and not clear. The haddock and potatoes were in chunksâ€ (also a fact of consequence). â€œShe agitated it a little with the spoon and observed that it was a fairly full bowl. . . . It was hot when she got it, but she did not tip it with her spoon because it was hot . . . but stirred it in an up and under motion. She denied that she did this because she was looking for something, but it was rather because she wanted an even distribution of fish and potatoes.â€ â€œShe started to eat it, alternating between the chowder and crackers which were on the table with . . . [some] rolls. She ate about 3 or 4 spoonfuls then stopped. She looked at the spoonfuls as she was eating. She saw equal parts of liquid, potato and fish as she spooned it into her mouth. She did not see anything unusual about it. After 3 or 4 spoonfuls she was aware that something had lodged in her throat because she couldnâ€™t swallow and couldnâ€™t clear her throat by gulping and she could feel it.â€ This misadventure led to two esophagoscopies at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the second of which, on April 27, 1959, a fish bone was found and removed. The sequence of events produced injury to the plaintiff which was not insubstantial.
We must decide whether a fish bone lurking in a fish chowder, about the ingredients of which there is no other complaint, constitutes a breach of implied warranty under applicable provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, the annotations to which are not helpful on this point. As the judge put it in his charge, â€œWas the fish chowder fit to be eaten and wholesome? . . . [N]obody is claiming that the fish itself wasnâ€™t wholesome. . . . But the bone of contention hereâ€”I donâ€™t mean that for a punâ€”but was this fish bone a foreign substance that made the fish chowder unwholesome or not fit to be eaten?â€ The plaintiff has vigorously reminded us of the high standards imposed by this court where the sale of food is involved . . . and has made reference to cases involving stones in beans . . ., trichinae in pork . . ., and to certain other cases, here and elsewhere, serving to bolster her contention of breach of warranty.
The defendant asserts that here was a native New Englander eating fish chowder in a â€œquaintâ€ Boston dining place where she had been before; that â€œ[f]ish chowder, as it is served and enjoyed by New Englanders, is a hearty dish, originally designed to satisfy the appetites of our seamen and fishermenâ€ that â€œ[t]his court knows well that we are not talking of some insipid broth as is customarily served to convalescents.â€ We are asked to rule in such fashion that no chef is forced â€œto reduce the pieces of fish in the chowder to minuscule size in an effort to ascertain if they contained any pieces of bone.â€ â€œIn so ruling,â€ we are told (in the defendantâ€™s brief), â€œthe court will not only uphold its reputation for legal knowledge and acumen, but will, as loyal sons of Massachusetts, save our world-renowned fish chowder from degenerating into an insipid broth containing the mere essence of its former stature as a culinary masterpiece.â€
Notwithstanding these passionate entreaties we are bound to examine with detachment the nature of fish chowder and what might happen to it under varying interpretations of the Uniform Commercial Code.
Chowder is an ancient dish preexisting even â€œthe appetites of our seamen and fishermen.â€ It was perhaps the common ancestor of the â€œmore refined cream soups, purees, and bisques.â€ . . . The word â€œchowderâ€ comes from the French â€œchaudiere,â€ meaning a â€œcauldronâ€ or â€œpot.â€ â€œIn the fishing villages of Brittany . . . â€˜faire la chaudiereâ€™ means to supply a cauldron in which is cooked a mess of fish and biscuit with some savoury condiments, a hodgepodge contributed by the fishermen themselves, each of whom in return receives his share of the prepared dish. The Breton fishermen probably carried the custom to Newfoundland, long famous for its chowder, whence it has spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England.â€ A New English Dictionary (MacMillan and Co., 1893) p. 386. Our literature over the years abounds in references not only to the delights of chowder but also to its manufacture. A namesake of the plaintiff, Daniel Webster, had a recipe for fish chowder which has survived into a number of modern cookbooks and in which the removal of fish bones is not mentioned at all. One old time recipe recited in the New English Dictionary study defines chowder as â€œA dish made of fresh fish (esp. cod) or clams, stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit. â€˜Cider and champagne are sometimes added.â€™â€ Hawthorne, in The House of the Seven Gables . . ., speaks of â€œ[a] codfish of sixty pounds, caught in the bay, [which] had been dissolved into the rich liquid of a chowder.â€
A chowder variant, cod â€œMuddle,â€ was made in Plymouth in the 1890s by taking â€œa three or four pound codfish, head added. Season with salt and pepper and boil in just enough water to keep from burning. When cooked, add milk and piece of butter.â€ The recitation of these ancient formulae suffices to indicate that in the construction of chowders in these parts in other years, worries about fish bones played no role whatsoever. This broad outlook on chowders has persisted in more modern cookbooks. â€œThe chowder of today is much the same as the old chowder . . .â€ The American Womanâ€™s Cook Book, supra, p. 176. The all embracing Fannie Farmer states in a portion of her recipe, fish chowder is made with a â€œfish skinned, but head and tail left on. Cut off head and tail and remove fish from backbone. Cut fish in 2-inch pieces and set aside. Put head, tail, and backbone broken in pieces, in stewpan; add 2 cups cold water and bring slowly to boiling point. . . .â€ The liquor thus produced from the bones is added to the balance of the chowder . . .
Thus, we consider a dish which for many long years, if well made, has been made generally as outlined above. It is not too much to say that a person sitting down in New England to consume a good New England fish chowder embarks on a gustatory adventure which may entail the removal of some fish bones from his bowl as he proceeds. We are not inclined to tamper with age old recipes by any amendment reflecting the plaintiffâ€™s view of the effect of the Uniform Commercial Code upon them. We are aware of the heavy body of case law involving foreign substances in food, but we sense a strong distinction between them and those relative to unwholesomeness of the food itself, e.g., tainted mackerel . . . and a fish bone in a fish chowder. Certain Massachusetts cooks might cavil at the ingredients contained in the chowder in this case in that it lacked the heartening lift of salt pork. In any event, we consider that the joys of life in New England include the ready availability of fresh fish chowder. We should be prepared to cope with the hazards of fish bones, the occasional presence of which in chowders is, it seems to us, to be anticipated, and which, in the light of a hallowed tradition, do not impair their fitness or merchantability. While we are buoyed up in this conclusion by Shapiro v. Hotel Statler Corp. 132 F. Supp. 891 (S. D. Cal.), in which the bone which afflicted the plaintiff appeared in â€œHot Barquette of Seafood Mornay,â€ we know that the United States District Court of Southern California, situated as are we upon a coast, might be expected to share our views. We are most impressed, however, by Allen v. Grafton, 170 Ohio St. 249, where in Ohio, the Midwest, in a case where the plaintiff was injured by a piece of oyster shell in an order of friend [sic] oysters, Mr. Justice Taft (now Chief Justice) in a majority opinion held that â€œthe possible presence of a piece of oyster shell in or attached to an oyster is so well known to anyone who eats oysters that we can say as a matter of law that one who eats oysters can reasonably anticipate and guard against eating such a piece of shell . . .â€
Thus, while we sympathize with the plaintiff who has suffered a peculiarly New England injury, the order must be . . . judgment for the defendant.
As with most legal decisions, the critical-thinking activity that is most obvious is the need to reexamine the analogies used by the court in justifying its conclusion. The plaintiff wished the court to say that fish chowder was like what? What analogy did the defendant want the court to accept? Would the aptness of the analogy depend at all on the size of the bone in the fish chowder?
ETHICAL DECISION MAKING
The judge mainly used assumption of risk to rule against Webster, though she suffered an injury in fact. Should the restaurant have somehow compensated her? What would the WPH framework indicate should be done?