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Deodand is a thing forfeited or given to God, specifically, in law, an object or instrument which becomes forfeit because it has caused a person's death.[1]

The English common law of deodands traces back to the 11th century and was applied, on and off, until Parliament finally abolished it in 1846.[2] Under this law, a chattel (i.e. some personal property, such as a horse or a hay stack) was considered a deodand whenever a coroner's jury decided that it had caused the death of a human being.[3] In theory, deodands were forfeit to the crown, which was supposed to sell the chattel and then apply the profits to some pious use.[4] (The term deodand derives from the Latin phrase "deo dandum" which means "to be given to God.") In reality, the juries who decided that a particular animal or object was a deodand also appraised its value and the owners were expected to pay a fine equal to the value of the deodand. If the owner could not pay the deodand, his township was held responsible.[3]


Prior to 1066, animals and objects causing serious damage or even death were called banes, and were handed over directly to the victim in a practice known as noxal surrender.[5] Early legislation also directed people to pay specific sums of money, called wergild, as compensation for actions that resulted in someone else's death.[6]

The transition from bane to deodand remains obscure. By the second half of the thirteenth century, however, the coroner's rolls are replete with references to vats, tubs, horses, carts, boats, stones, trees, etc.[2] The rules on which they depended were not easily explained by 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 ran 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 below the years of discretion.[7]

Deodands were still being forfeited throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, although not as frequently as before. Some scholars think the practice died out completely in the 18th century. Others speculated that deodands had become nominal assessment that were routinely levied.[8] Another possibility is that the practice was receiving less official attention because the profits from deodands were no longer going into royal coffers. By then, the crown had long sold off the rights to deodands from most jurisdictions to lords, townships and corporations.[9]


The rapid development of the railways during the 1830s, saw an epidemic of railway deaths. The indifferent attitudes of the railway companies caused increasing public hostility.

Under the common law of England and Wales, compensation could only be paid for physical damage to the claimant or their property. The families of fatal accident victims had no claim for purely emotional and economic loss. As a result, coroner's juries started to award deodands as a way of penalising the railways.[10]

On Christmas Eve 1841, in an accident on the Great Western Railway, a train ran into a landslip in Sonning Cutting and eight passengers were killed. The inquest jury assigned a deodand value of £1000 to the train. Subsequently, a Board of Trade inspector exonerated the company from blame and the deodand was quashed on appeal, on technicalities.

This alerted legislators, in particular Lord Campbell and the Select Committee on Railway Labourers (1846).[11] In the face of railway opposition, Campbell introduced a bill in 1845 to compensate victims. The bill led to the Fatal Accidents Act 1846, also known as Lord Campbell's Act. Campbell also introduced a bill to abolish deodands. The latter proposal, which became law as the Deodands Act 1846, to some extent mitigated railway hostility.[10]

In the United States

In American law, the deodand has been cited as a source for the modern civil forfeiture doctrine.[5][12]

Some U.S. state constitutions prohibit deodands, frequently in the same article that prohibits corruption of blood.[citation needed][1]


  1. Chisholm 1911.
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  4. Sir Edward Coke (1669)
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  8. Smith (1967)
  9. Parliamentary Debates pp623-626
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