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What the Telegraph Can Teach Us About the Moral Economy

As we grapple with the law’s ability to address today's most powerful corporations, one interesting yet largely forgotten set of cases can help us find our bearing: the “death telegram” cases. These suits involved claims for emotional distress against telegraph corporations for failing to deliver telegrams involving the death or illness of a family member. Astonishingly, nearly half the state courts that encountered these claims allowed them, in spite of the long-established common law rule that absent physical injury, mental anguish alone could not be recognized in law. This exception was justified, in part, because the companies were seen as "public service corporations" – a monopolistic business entity that controlled access to a vital public resource and had special emotional duties to its customers. What would it mean to revive such a conception of the corporation today?