Telegraph Torts: The Lost Lineage of the Public Service Corporation

53 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2022 Last revised: 27 Oct 2023

See all articles by Evelyn Atkinson

Evelyn Atkinson

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: September 28, 2022


At the turn of the twentieth century, state courts were roiled by claims against telegraph corporations for mental anguish resulting from the failure to deliver telegrams involving the death or injury of a family member. Although these “telegraph cases” at first may seem a bizarre outlier, they in fact reveal an important and understudied moment of transformation in the nature of the relationship between the corporation and the public: the role of affective relations in the development of the public utility corporation. Even as powerful corporations were recast as private, rights-bearing, profit-making market actors in constitutional law, a significant minority of rural state courts deviated from the common law to impose liability for mental anguish on negligent telegraph corporations. They did so on the basis that telegraph companies bore an affirmative duty to protect the emotional well-being and family connections of their customers. In this, courts gave voice to the popular view, voiced by telegraph users and promoted by the companies themselves, of the telegraph corporation as a faithful servant of individual families and communities. In so doing, they embedded the historical and popular perception of the corporation as “servant” into the definition of “public service.”

This Article exposes the private law of the public service corporation and the non-economic dimension of the legal category of “public utility.” Current scholarship has focused on how turn-of-the-century jurists developed the category of “public utility” or “public service” corporation to justify state economic regulations that would otherwise infringe on corporations’ newfound constitutional rights. The telegraph cases reveal a concurrent and complementary development in tort law: the imposition of affective responsibilities on certain corporations as well. Illuminating this doctrine offers an example of how the public utility category could be mobilized to protect the emotional as well as economic well-being of the public today.

Suggested Citation

Atkinson, Evelyn, Telegraph Torts: The Lost Lineage of the Public Service Corporation (September 28, 2022). Telegraph Torts: The Lost Lineage of the Public Service Corporation, 121 MICHIGAN LAW REVIEW 8 (2023)., Available at SSRN: or

Evelyn Atkinson (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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