John G. Browning 2015-04-25 03:39:58
Believe it or not, some of the craziest animated scenarios actually happen in real life. And there are lawsuits to prove it. Sitting in front of the television watching cartoons as a child, I had no idea that I was getting my earliest introduction to tort law. There was the never-ending conflict between Tom and Jerry, the manic mishaps of Scooby-Doo and the gang in their pursuit of the paranormal, Elmer Fudd’s hunt of that “wascally wabbit” Bugs Bunny, and the back-and-forth battling of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner (or for a younger generation, the hyper-violent antics of Itchy and Scratchy in the cartoon-within-a-cartoon on The Simpsons ). In all of these animated works, impressionable minds like mine absorbed valuable lessons: never walk underneath moving men transporting pianos, anvils, or safes; avoid buying anything made by the Acme Corporation; striking someone over the head with a crowbar or metal pipe will leave it bent in the shape of the victim’s noggin; and running through a wall will leave behind a hole in the outline of your body. But like kids everywhere, I grew up and realized the folly of such notions, having learned that real people are far more fragile than animated characters and that accidents are the result of distinct causes and not some wildly improbable chain of events set in motion by a cartoon cat. Then I went to law school, and like generations of first-year students who have suffered through torts, I was exposed to the case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company .1 On Aug. 24, 1924, 43-year-old Helen Palsgraf was standing on the Jamaica Station platform of the Long Island Rail Road in Queens, New York, waiting for her train. After it arrived, a man trying to board the train dropped a package containing fireworks wrapped in newspaper. The subsequent events—straight out of a Looney Tunes episode—began with what the New York Times called a “short-lived pyrotechnic display,”2 as the fireworks exploded, causing a scale on the platform to fall, striking Palsgraf. She sued over her injuries and won $6,000 (about $75,000 in today’s terms). But the victory was brief. It was reversed by the New York Court of Appeals, in a opinion written by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo that has become a hallmark in American tort law. The opinion established foreseeability as the test for “proximate cause”; Cardozo wrote that there was no way that the railroad or its employees could have foreseen that the package was dangerous, and therefore they couldn’t have breached any duty of care owed to Palsgraf. Of course, the unlikely events in Palsgraf aside, cartoon-like scenarios don’t happen in real-world lawsuits; or do they? As a matter of fact, they do. The old cigar-exploding-in-your-face scene that you thought only happened to cartoon villains? It actually occurred in Dow Drug v. Nieman, in which the plaintiff bought a cigar at a drugstore only to have it explode once lit.3 And anvils don’t actually fall on people, right? Tell that to the plaintiff whose hand was crushed by one in Allstate Ins. Co. v. Furman .4 How about walking down the street and falling into an open manhole, or heading out onto a frozen lake only to fall through the thin ice? Scenes like this weren’t just played for comedic effect in cartoons and movies; they led to actual lawsuits.5 Or perhaps the slapstick effect of running into a pole while chasing someone, or being struck by a collapsing Murphy bed? Believe it or not, these sorts of mishaps happened to real people and have been enshrined in legal precedent. 6 And sure it’s funny when you see someone on TV get zapped when he sticks his finger in an electrical socket, hit his thumb with a hammer by mistake, or go flying when he slips on a bar of soap in the shower, but the real-life versions of such incidents led to reallife lawsuits and real-life damages.7 For all the giggles produced in a cartoon when a golf club flies out of someone’s hands and strikes another golfer, it was certainly no laughing matter when it happened to the plaintiff in Crovetto v. New Orleans City Park Imp. Ass’n .8 Anyone who has ever watched cartoons knows that what really matters is what real estate agents have been telling us for decades—location, location, location. Show me a bowling alley or a construction site, and I’ll show you accidents waiting to happen. Apparently, it’s no different in lawsuits, where actual plaintiffs have been hit by errant bowling balls,9 struck by falling cans of paint,10 or even taken a jackhammer to the foot.11 If you’ve chuckled at a cartoon where a person and her tent are swept away by a strong wind, secure in the knowledge that such a thing couldn’t really happen, then you should read about the plaintiff who was carried into the air when the tent she was holding on to at an outdoor music festival was taken by a powerful gust.12 And don’t even get me started about what can happen at the circus, especially when a wayward clown backs into a woman, causing her to fall into the camel cage.13 Yes, whether it’s an exploding cigar or a flying bar of soap, chances are that the same slapstick scenes we’ve laughed at in animated form have all-too-real counterparts in the legal system. This goes for even the most improbable sounding scenarios. Just ask Helen Palsgraf. Notes 1. 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928). 2. Bomb Blast Injures 13 in Station Crowd, N.Y. Times, Aug. 25, 1924, at 1. 3. 13 N.E.2d 130 (Ohio Ct. App. 1936). 4. 445 N.Y.S.2d 236 (N.Y. App. Div. 1982). 5. See, for example, Jimenez v. Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, 2007 WL 808662 (E.D. La. March 14, 2007); Wringer v. U.S., 790 F. Supp. 210 (D. Ariz. 1992). 6. See Johnson v. Outdoor Installations LLC, 979 N.Y.S. 2d 523 (N.Y. App. Div. 2014), and Meehan v. McCloy, 40 N.Y. S.2d 207 (N.Y. App. Div. 1943). 7. See Kearns v. Smith, 131 P.2d 36 (Cal. Ct. App. 1942); Faulhaber v. Roberts Dairy Co., 24 N.W.2d 571 (Neb. 1946); Perotti v. Seiter, 869 E.2d 1492 (6th Cir. 1992). 8. 653 So.2d 752 (La. Ct. App. 1995). 9. See, for example, Cerrato v. Carapella, 804 N.Y.S.2d 402 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005), or Dunn v. Bilger, 1995 WL 230961 (Conn. Super. Ct. April 11, 1995). 10. Reed v. Western Union Telegraph Co., 141 P. 161 (Or. 1914). 11. Parra v. Rieth-Riley Const. Co., 2001 WL 310414 (Tenn. Workers Comp. Panel 2001). 12. Isle J_______ v. Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise, Case No. 56-2012-004 16828 (Ventura County Super. Ct., filed May 4, 2012). 13. Darlene B v. Jerusalem Temple Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, No. 2014-07176 G (New Orleans Parish, filed July 22, 2014). JOHN G. BROWNING is a partner in Passman & Jones in Dallas, where he handles commercial litigation, employment, health care, and personal injury defense matters in state and federal courts. He is an award-winning legal journalist for his syndicated column, “Legally Speaking,” and the author of the Social Media and Litigation Practice Guide and a forthcoming casebook on social media and the law. He is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.
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