Osborne v. McMasters

41 N.W. 543 (Minn. 1889)

Quick Summary

Osborne (plaintiff) sued McMasters (defendant) after the defendant’s clerk sold an unlabeled bottle of poison to the plaintiff’s decedent, leading to her death. The issue was whether McMasters was negligent for violating a statute requiring poisons to be labeled.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota held that McMasters was liable because the statute imposed a specific duty to label poisons, and its violation constituted negligence per se. The court affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of Osborne.

Facts of the Case

The case involves Osborne (plaintiff), who filed a lawsuit against McMasters (defendant), the owner of a drug store. The clerk at McMasters’ drug store sold a deadly poison to Osborne’s decedent without the required statutory warning label indicating that the substance was poisonous.

Subsequently, Osborne’s decedent consumed the poison, unaware of its lethal nature, which led to her death. The plaintiff asserted that the defendant was negligent for violating a statute that mandated all poisonous substances to be clearly labeled as poison.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The trial court ruled in favor of Osborne, finding McMasters liable for negligence.
  2. McMasters appealed the trial court’s decision to the Supreme Court of Minnesota.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether McMasters is liable for negligence due to the clerk’s failure to label a bottle of poison, resulting in the death of Osborne’s decedent.

Rule of Law

When a statute imposes a specific duty for the protection of others, failure to perform that duty constitutes negligence per se, and the party is liable for injuries that are proximately caused by such neglect.

Reasoning and Analysis

The court reasoned that liability does not depend on whether an action would have been considered negligent under common law but rather on whether there was a breach of legal duty as defined either by common law or by statute. In this case, the statute clearly established a duty to label poisons.

The defendant’s argument, suggesting that civil liability only exists where common law already recognizes negligence, was rejected. Instead, the court emphasized that negligence is the non-performance of any legal duty, and in this instance, the statute set the standard for duty.

The employer (McMasters) is civilly liable for the actions of his employee (the clerk) when those actions, performed during employment, result in harm to third parties.


The Supreme Court of Minnesota affirmed the judgment of the trial court, holding McMasters liable for negligence.

Key Takeaways

  1. Statutory duties impose specific obligations, and failure to comply with them can result in negligence per se.
  2. An employer is civilly liable for the negligent acts of an employee if those acts occur within the scope of employment and cause harm to third parties.
  3. The violation of a statute designed to protect public safety constitutes conclusive evidence of negligence.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What is negligence per se and how does it differ from ordinary negligence?

Negligence per se is a legal doctrine that deems an act negligent because it violates a statute or regulation. Unlike ordinary negligence, which requires a showing that the defendant’s conduct fell below the standard of care expected of a reasonable person, negligence per se establishes that standard based on the violation of the law itself.

  • For example: A driver speeding in a school zone where speed limits are clearly marked may be found negligent per se, because the act of speeding violates traffic laws intended to protect children.

How might an employer be held liable for an employee’s actions?

An employer can be held vicariously liable for the actions of an employee if those actions were performed within the scope of employment and were connected to duties assigned by the employer. This principle ensures that injury caused by an employee’s work-related actions can be rectified through the employer’s greater resources.

  • For example: If a delivery driver, while making deliveries for their employer, negligently causes a vehicle accident, the employer may be held liable for damages arising from the accident.

In what situations does violating a safety statute result in conclusive evidence of negligence?

A violation of a safety statute is considered conclusive evidence of negligence when the act breaches a statutory duty intended to protect a specific class of persons or prevent a particular type of harm. This means that by breaking the law itself, one is automatically considered to have been negligent without need for further proof.

  • For example: If a construction company fails to provide hard hats in an area marked for mandatory head protection by occupational safety laws, this act is conclusively negligent should any employee suffer a head injury from falling debris.


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