Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Deodand

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DEODAND (Deo dandum), in English law, was a personal chattel (any animal or thing) which, on account of its having caused the death of a human being, was forfeited to the king for pious uses. Blackstone, while tracing in the custom an expiatory design, alludes to analogous Jewish and Greek laws,[1] which required that that what occasions a man's death should be destroyed. In such usages the notion of the punishment of an animal or thing, or of its being morally affected from having caused the death of a man, seems to be implied. The forfeiture of the offending instrument in no way depends on the guilt of the owner. The imputation of guilt to inanimate objects or to the lower animals, repugnant as it is to our habits of thought, is not inconsistent with what we know of the ideas of uncivilized races. In English law, deodands came to be regarded as mere forfeitures to the king, and the rules on which they depended were not easily explained by any key in the possession of the old commentators. The law distinguished, for instance, between a thing in motion and a thing standing still. If a horse or other animal in motion killed a person, whether infant or adult, or if a cart run over him, it was forfeited as a deodand. On the other hand, if death were caused by falling from a cart or a horse at rest, the law made the chattel a deodand if the person killed were an adult, but not if he were a person below the years of discretion. Blackstone accounts for the greater severity against things in motion by saying that in such cases the owner is more usually at fault, an explanation which is doubtful in point of fact, and would certainly not account for other instances of the same tendency. Thus, where a man's death is caused by a thing not in motion, that part only which is the immediate cause is forfeited, as “if a man be climbing up the wheel of a cart, and is killed by falling from it, the wheel alone is a deodand;” whereas, if the cart were in motion, not only the wheel but all that moves along with it (as the cart and the loading) are forfeited. A similar distinction is to be found in Britton. Where a man is killed by a vessel at rest the cargo is not deodand; where the vessel is under sail, hull and cargo are both deodand. For the distinction between the death of a child and the death of an adult Blackstone accounts by suggesting that the child “was presumed incapable of actual sin, and therefore needed no deodand to purchase propitiatory masses ; but every adult who died in actual sin stood in need of such atonement, according to the humane superstition of the founders of the English law." Sir Matthew Hale s explanation was that the child could not take care of himself, whereon Blackstone asks why the owner should save his forfeiture on account of the imbecility of the child, which ought to have been an additional reason for caution. The finding of a jury was necessary to con stitute a deodand, and the investigation of the value of the instrument by which death was caused occupies an important place among the provisions of our early criminal law. It became a necessary part of an indictment to state the nature and value of the weapon employed as, that the stroke was given by a certain penknife, of the value of sixpence so that the king might have his deodand. Accidents on the high seas did not cause forfeiture, being beyond the domain of the common law ; but it would appear that in the case of ships in fresh water, the law as quoted above from Britton held good. The king might grant his right to deodands to another.

In later times these forfeitures, so unintelligible in their purpose, so capricious and unjust in operation, became extremely unpopular; and juries, with the connivance of judges, found deodands of trifling value, so as to defeat the inequitable claim. But deodands were not abolished till the 9 and 10 Viet. c. 62 was passed, whereby it is enacted that " there shall be no forfeiture of any chattel for or in respect of the same having caused the death of a man ; and no coroner s jury sworn to inquire, upon the sight of any dead body, how the deceased came by his death, shall find any forfeiture of any chattel which may have moved to or caused the death of the deceased, or any deodand whatsoever ; and it shall not be necessary in any indictment or inquisition for homicide to allege the value of the instrument which caused the death of the deceased, or to allege that the same was of no value." The date of this Act (1846) may suggest the great inconvenience which the law, if it had remained in operation, would have caused to railway and other enterprise in which loss of life is a frequent occurrence.

  1. Compare also the rule of the Twelve Tables, by which an animal which had inflicted mischief might be surrendered in lieu of compensation.