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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Stagecoach Accidents

Oftentimes, stagecoach accidents resulted in lawsuits for injuries received. This one, Sprague vs. Dillon, went to trial in San Francisco’s Superior Court on May 16, 1854.

Sprague, the plaintiff, testified that he was riding on the top of a heavily-laden coach owned by defendants Dillon, Hedge & Company. On coming to a difficult road, Sprague asked the driver to stop. The driver replied that there was no danger, and drove on. A few minutes later, the coach became so unsteady on a hillside that Sprague and two other passengers jumped off. The coach did not upset, but Sprague was crippled from his fall.

Mr. Dillon, representing his firm in court, testified that jumping from the vehicle had been unnecessary, and that the plaintiff’s injuries were the result of his own foolhardy act. Sprague countered that the top-heavy coach would have upset, had he and two fellow passengers not jumped off when they did—his proof being that three different passengers felt the same way and adopted the same course. Further, had they not jumped off, he claimed that the injuries would have been far greater.

The brief newspaper report of the trial doesn’t say whether or not Sprague had witnesses in court that day, or expected to produce them at a later time. However, Messrs. Dillon and Hedge were reputable, experienced men who had driven stage routes in New England and Mexico; and declarations by either side now threatened to dissipate into long-winded, back-and-forth arguments. At this point Judge Satterlee ordered the case continued until Thursday May 18 and when that day arrived, continued it again to Saturday May 20.

But the combatants didn’t show up in court that Saturday. Evidently both sides made a satisfactory settlement out of court, one which Sprague must have felt was better than what the judge or a jury might have awarded him; and one that the stage proprietors were willing to pay to save their good reputation from further damage.

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