SEAY V. MARKS, 23 ALABAMA 532 (1853)


Under a general contract for a hired slave, the hirer could employ the slave in any task that slaves customarily performed.

If the same hirer employed the slave in an unusually hazardous task, he became liable for the slave's value if killed.

Facts of the Case

On January 1, 1852, Jesse J. Seay hired King from E.W. Marks under a contract that did not specify how the slave would be employed. At the time, however, Seay owned a livery stable, where Marks understood that King would work. Seay subsequently rehired King to Nance, who employed him to raft logs down the Alabama River. Nance directed King to cross the river at a certain ferry, but King crossed elsewhere and was drowned. The Dallas County Circuit Court charged the jury that Seay was liable if working in the livery stable had been a condition of employment. If not, the hirer was bound to exercise the care that a prudent master would take toward his slaves.

Seay's Argument

Before the Alabama Supreme Court, Seay argued that he was not liable for King's death because it resulted from the slave's own "reckless or perverse will."

Marks' Argument

Marks argued that Seay had broken the contract by rehiring King to Nance.

The Court's Decision

Chief Justice William P. Chilton wrote the decision for the Alabama Supreme Court. He ruled that Marks should have been more specific in the contract if he did not want King rehired for a purpose other than that which he presumed. Under the circumstances, Seay was justified in rehiring King for any task which a prudent master would have a slave perform. On the other hand, the owner could recover if the slave had been employed in an unusually hazardous capacity. Chilton remanded the case because the lower court had admitted oral evidence regarding Seay's ownership of a livery stable and Marks' presumption that King would work there.

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