The Case of the Drunken Sailor

One night in the 1960’s, a Coast Guard sailor, whose ship was in port for repairs, came stumbling back to the vessel in, to use the words of the judge, “the condition for which seamen are famed.” His ship was in a dry-dock, a floating tub of water which is drained once the ship is inside so that repairs to the hull can be made. The sailor, buoyed by drink, tried his hand at the dry-dock control wheels, letting in water which eventually caused the boat and dry-dock to partially sink. The dry-dock owners sued the government for the money damages the sailor’s actions caused, and the government eventually had to foot the bill.

This case is used in Torts to demonstrate the notion of respondeat superior, the Latin legal phrase meaning that in some cases employers will have to pay for the wrongful actions of their employees while they’re at work. Yes, being a drunken sailor was considered being at work. Certain days in my Torts class, instead of cold-calling, my professor, Professor McMorrow, would ask if anyone with experience in the subject matter of that day’s case wanted to volunteer to engage in the Socratic dialogue with her. A case about a patient in a mental health ward: “are there any psychology undergrad majors here?” A case about the NFL: “are there any football players with us?” A case about guns: “are there any Texans in the class?” The case about the drunken sailor: “are there any drink–” no, of course she didn’t ask that. She asked if there were any singers in the class.

We looked around, curious: what was this about? No one volunteered, but three poor souls whose friends shouted the loudest were reported to have been college a cappella stars. The professor waved them to the front of the room. She turned on the overhead projector. She dimmed the lights. What was this about? “We will need everyone to help our three vocalists out, and we will be singing together.” And up on the screen she put her amended lyrics to the Irish folk song “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” If you aren’t familiar, the Irish Rovers have a fantastic version of the original on YouTube.

We proceeded to sing the facts of the case, 84 first-year law students, clapping along, to the tune of the song. “Saw them wheels and turned them ‘round oh,” “Dry-dock berth oh it was battered,” “Sue that sailor, he done wrong oh…” Of course after the singing we proceeded to engage in the typical Socratic dialogue about the legal intricacies of the case, but this unique method of fact presentation will preserve this case as one that stands apart from the hundreds of cases we examined.

Moments in class like these are reminders that it’s possible to approach serious matters like the law with levity. It’s easy to get lost in the vastness of the law, the difficulty of understanding concepts and cases, knowing that in three short years you will have to forge a way into this profession. I’ve found that the professors are aware of theses challenges and intimidations. They’re willing to be honest about the difficulties, but will insert moments of escape, like the one described above. These moments are important, instructing us to enjoy the ride and structure our own moments of release into our student schedules so that we will be more relaxed and enjoyable professionals.


Alex is a 1L and has recently joined BC Law Impact. You can reach him here or at bourhode@bc.edu.

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