What if a plaintiff says that the defendant acted under a statute law and the defendant claims he acted under case law?

How can people on the street later claim that their acts where founded on case law?

I am asking the same question several ways to help clarify the issue.

What decides which law is superior; statute law or case law?

Is there a formula for deciding controlling law?

Statute law helps one litigant while case law helps the other litigant. So, would not the statute law take precedents because it is more clearly established?

What if a state agency has their own statutes which grant them authority would not that have higher authority than case law?



Statutes v. Regulations v. Case Law

The distinction that you make between statute law and case law isn't helpful.

Before a statute is enacted regarding a topic it is governed by the common law, which is a body of law created by courts, address certain legal issues.

A statute, when enacted, can modify the common law rules that apply to a situation. For example, there is not a common law rule that contracts have to be in writing, but the "statute of frauds" which is actually a collection of statutes, overrides that common law rule and provides that certain contracts have to be in writing. A statute can outright overrule prior case law.

Other cases, decided after the statute is enacted, are binding and definitively determinations of what a statute means.

For example, case law interpreting the statute of frauds may state that the statute of frauds is not applicable to cases where there has been part performance of an oral contract.

Sometimes case law interpreting a statute gives it a different meaning than some of its more obvious plain language interpretations, not really overriding the statute, but influencing what the statute means in ways that wouldn't be clear without the case law.

Regulations, like case law, provide another way to interpret the meaning of a statute without overruling it, and can effectively influence how it should be interpreted in ways that wouldn't be clear without the regulation. Case law, in turn, can determine if the regulations were validly enacted and if the regulations are a permissible interpretation of the statute, and can determine what the regulations mean as applied to a particular set of facts.

Can A Layman Determine What The Case Law Says?

There is no direct way that a person on the street can easily determine what case law says through research. They need to rely on lawyers and other secondary sources to determine what the law obligates them to do and what statutes actually mean.

Is there a formula for deciding controlling law?

Yes and no. There are general rules that are considered in determining what is "controlling law", but in practice, applying those general rules is more of an art than a science. Often reasonable people can come to more than one conclusion.

One of the main things that makes the determination of "controlling law" more art than science is the level of generality with which the rules can or should be stated.

For example, there might be a general principle that "you have a duty to pay compensatory damages to someone whom you harm without justification", that is controlling, but there might not be case law determining if the facts that allegedly constitute justification in a particular lawsuit actually constitute justification or not. If there is a case law precedent binding upon the court in which a case is tried with similar facts, courts will try to apply the ruling in that case to your case. But, deciding whether facts are similar or not can be more of an art than a science. It isn't a formula that can be applied by a computer or as an "umpire". The judge or jury has to exercise judgment in applying the law to the facts, and in deciding how specifically the law can be described in a particular situation.

Some rules of law, called "standards" are deliberately vague and call for a fact by fact determination based upon the context of a particular case.

For example, "negligence" is a basis for finding that there is civil liability in a lawsuit, but negligence has to be decided on a case by case basis by the finder of fact without regarding to how juries in similar cases have evaluated similar facts. A jury in one case could find that conduct is negligent while a jury in another case could find that identical conduct is not negligent without the controlling law (that negligence is necessary to find liability) being different between the two cases.

Similarly, the controlling law may be that it is copyright infringement to make a derivative work from copyrighted material whose copyright is still in force, unless it is fair use, and may define all of those terms. But, somebody has to apply the controlling law to the facts to determine if there was a copyright infringement, and the relevant definitions often leave room for interpretation and judgment.

Controlling law means law (both statute law and regulations and case law taken together) that clearly applies to the circumstances presented providing a legal answer. Not infrequently, the answer to the question of "who wins" isn't obvious even when you know the controlling law.

Typically, the term controlling law implies the law of the correct state, as modified by any relevant federal law, and as interpreted by all relevant regulations and case law, where the language of the statute, regulations and case law that apply make it clear that the statute applies to the particular set of facts to which the law is applied.

When there is no "controlling law" because the relevant statutes, regulations and case law are silent on what the law says in a particular circumstance, this is called a "question of first impression."

For example, if a statute says it applies to "livestock", and the term livestock is undefined, and there are no relevant regulations or cases, the question of whether bee colonies count as "livestock" would be a question of first impression upon which there is no controlling law.

But, if a case interpreting the statute determined that a hunting dog isn't "livestock" that case taken together with the statute, would be controlling law holding that hunting dogs are not livestock in future cases.

Resolving Apparent Conflicts Between Sources Of Law

A variety of doctrines govern apparent inconsistencies between different sources of law.

For example, generally speaking, federal law overrides state law under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but if the federal law takes the form of a treaty, it is necessary to determine if the treaty is "self-executing" or merely imposed a duty on the government to do something without creating a right on the part of an individual litigant to enforce the treaty directly.

If there are cases that reach opposite conclusions on the same point of law, cases decided in courts with appellate authority over the court deciding another case prevail. Only cases decided by courts with appellate authority over the court where the case arises are binding, other cases are persuasive authority but allow the court to reach another conclusion if it thinks that the non-binding precedents are ill reasoned.

There is also considerable effort made to determine if two sources of law that seem to conflict actually do. For example, if there are two contrary definitions of "livestock" in two difference cases, one discussing a tax statute and the other discussing a trespass statute, the definitions determined in the cases apply only to those statutes and don't necessarily apply with the same meaning in other contexts in different statutes or in interpretations of a contract.


Statutes are the political foundation of law: case law clarifies the meaning of particular statutes (though it may in fact also determine that despite the action of the legislature, there never was such a law since the bill that was passed is unconstitutional). For example, in the US the copyright statutes say that an author has the exclusive right to authorize making copies of their work, but there is also a provision that you can use some amount of a work for certain purposes without permission, as long as it is "fair use". The statute simply says that there are these factors that are "balanced", and people on the street have no realistic hope of knowing what would count as fair use. An attorney specializing in copyright law can give you a reasonable estimate of the probable outcome of a given case, based on professional knowledge of case law. Most of the time, non-lawyers on the street don't read court decisions and extract the subtle interpretive principles created by a ruling (which may in fact not be correct, depending on where in the legal chain the ruling was made).

Sources of law are arranged into a hierarchy, where the US Constitution is the "highest" but also most limited law – it says for example what the federal government can do and how they can do it. The same goes for states. If a state agency creates a rule prohibiting an action, then that rule has to have statutory authority under state law (you look for a clause in the statute saying "The Secretary shall promulgate rules prohibiting..."). Maybe the Secretary overstepped his authority and the underlying statute does not actually allow that particular rule – the courts will decide if that is the case (the state's Supreme Court usually has the final say, assuming that the underlying statute wasn't unconstitutional at the federal level). The court may decide that the law (the "authority" underlying the rule) conflicts with the state constitution, so the rule and the law may be stricken.

There are often conflicts in case law, where some mid-level courts rule one way and others rule another way. These conflicts may be resolved by a higher level court deciding a particular principle. For example, at the federal level, various district court judges may disagree. Districts are organized into circuits, where the 9th Circuit is superior to the Western Washington district. When the 9th Circuit decides something, that resolves the matter within that Circuit, but not necessarily in the 2nd Circuit. When the US Supreme Court decides a matter, that is the final word on the topic.

  • I was very surprised once to learn that Federal law differs significantly across the country, and so a company with widespread units can have serious accounting problems. – David Thornley Oct 17 '18 at 22:18

What if a plaintiff says that the defendant acted under a statute law and the defendant claims he acted under case law?

In theory, the rule for deciding the controlling law is that

where comprehensive legislation prescribes in detail a course of conduct to pursue and the parties and things affected, and designates specific limitations and exceptions, the Legislature will be found to have intended that the statute supersede and replace the common law dealing with the subject matter.

Hoerstman Gen Contracting, Inc. v. Hahn, 474 Mich. 66, 74; 711 N.W.2d 340 (2006)

The top court of other states/jurisdictions have formulated similar principles.

However, this answer starts with the premise in theory because in reality the courts (in my experience, from Michigan) are inconsistent and do whatever they want in order to force an invalid outcome. This is one of many aspects of judicial hypocrisy.

I filed a defamation lawsuit against my former employer, an IT intermediary from India linked to the University of Michigan. From county trial court to Michigan supreme court, my position has always been that the conditions for qualified privilege are listed in statute MCL 423.452, and thus the latter is the controlling law.

The defendant clearly fails the conditions of MCL 423.452. Thus, his lawyers repeatedly opposed to the application of that Michigan statute, insisting instead with case law that is significantly less specific than the statute's level of detail. Indeed, some elements of the [defamation] common-law qualified privilege remain unclear or undefined.

The result is that the Michigan courts in this matter at all times have babbled the case law version of qualified privilege. The opinions released by these "honorable" crooks are devoid of references to the aforementioned statute, notwithstanding the multiple times I argued its pertinence in my briefs and at hearings.

I subsequently filed my Petition for a Writ of Certiorari at the U.S. Supreme Court. Now the defendant alleges that the U.S. Supreme Court has no say in how the Michigan court "interpreted" the statute (the defendant thereby gives the false and misleading impression that the Michigan court has applied that statute).

would not the statute law take precedents because it is more clearly established?

I totally agree that statutory law should outweigh case law. Legislation entails a law-making process that is more open --and more democratic-- than the decisions made by an elected judge whose priority is to cater to the law firms and entities that can get him or her reelected and/or hired elsewhere with an enviable compensation.

  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review – Nij Aug 18 '18 at 21:10
  • @Nij Thanks for your comment, but my answer actually addresses the OP's clear and central question of which law (case vs. statutory) takes precedence. I responded on the basis of both (i) case law from the top court of a jurisdiction, and (ii) my personal experience from litigating that precise aspect in that same jurisdiction. Sources are provided in the links. I understand some downvoters work too close to courts and might frown upon my honest raw denouncement of how it works in real-life cases, but that does not change the fact that I addressed the OP's concise inquiry. – Iñaki Viggers Aug 18 '18 at 21:28

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