Law and the Multiverse Mailbag

This is the first in what we hope is a series of posts in which we answer questions from our readers.  We always welcome questions and post suggestions, which you can email to and But before we get to today’s questions, I wanted to give a quick thank you to François Guy, who has provided this French translation and adaptation of our post on Batman and Patents.  Now on to the mail.

Today’s questions come from Matt, who had two questions (well, he had three but one of them has been answered in a post already):

I. In the Spiderman origin story, what is Peter Parker’s liability for letting the armed robber run past him, ultimately leading to his Uncle Ben’s death?

In the US, the general rule is that people do not have an affirmative duty to do anything to aid others or to prevent crimes or torts.  See, e.g., Alabama Dept. of Corrections v. Thompson, 855 So.2d 1016, 1021-22 (Sup. Ct. Ala. 2003).  This extends even to merely warning another who is in danger.  See, e.g., Zelig v. County of Los Angeles, 27 Cal.4th 1112, 1129 (Sup. Ct. Cal. 2002).  And even in the case of superheroes who are state actors, the police likewise have no affirmative duty to enforce the law or protect people, though people are often surprised to learn that.  See, e.g., Castle Rock v. Gonzales, 545 U.S. 748 (2005).

While there are exceptions to this general rule for people who have a special relationship to the person endangered by another (e.g., parents owe such a duty to their children, innkeepers have been held to owe such a duty to their guests), that duty is not absolute.  It is normally judged by a negligence standard; it is not a duty to take all possible precautionary measures.  See, e.g., Shadday v. Omni Hotel Mgmt Corp., 477 F.3d 511, 512 (7th Cir. 2007).  So even if Peter Parker had an affirmative duty to act to protect Uncle Ben because of their relationship, I don’t think it was foreseeable that the robber would kill Uncle Ben as there was no particular reason to think that Ben would be a target or otherwise be in immediate danger.  Thus, I don’t think Peter was liable either criminally or in tort for his inaction.

II. Do superheroes whose powers were acquired through injuries or
circumstance (Daredevil, The Fantastic Four) qualify as disabled under the
Americans With Disabilities Act?

While we have addressed superpowers and the ADA, this specific question did not come up.  In short, I don’t think the way in which the power was gained would matter.  The question is only whether the superhero has an ongoing disability (or is discriminated against as though he or she did).  So in this case I think Daredevil is plainly disabled because of his blindness, though with his other heightened senses perhaps he requires less accommodation than some.  Of the Fantastic Four I think only Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) would be disabled, whether because of his limited manual dexterity or because he is discriminated against because of a perception that he is disabled.  The other members of the Fantastic Four have voluntary control over their powers and are otherwise typical humans in ability and appearance, so I don’t think they are legally disabled.

That’s all for today’s mailbag!  We hope to make this a regular (probably weekly) feature, so please keep your questions coming in.

15 responses to “Law and the Multiverse Mailbag

  1. The web of legalism led to infinite theoretical questions.But the society only wants practical and simples results, like that ones resulting of Superman’s acts.

  2. So the last episode of Seinfeld then… they wouldn’t have really gone to jail for not helping that guy? huh.

    • In Seinfeld there was a new statute that imposed a duty to rescue. Assuming such a statute were constitutional (witness the current dispute over the affirmative mandate in the health care reform bill), then they were probably guilty of violating it. But note that the Seinfeld writers had to invent a statute for plot purposes.

  3. Because Peter parker was aminor at the time of his uncles death wouldn’t he be held blameless in all cases?

    • In short, no. The law regarding the potential criminal and tort liability of minors is too complicated for a comment, but suffice to say that it is far from a blanket exemption from liability.

  4. In fact, it would appear to me that at common law, most superheroes in are actually better off not doing anything. Per the Good Samaritan rule, they would be liable for harm occurring in the course of aiding someone in trouble while they would not be held liable for harm occurring from the robbery.

    • I don’t think that’s how the Good Samaritan laws work in the U.S, those laws aren’t universally applied in this country and in the usual scenarios we see in comic books the superheroes would probably be able to claim that a reasonable person would have felt there was a peril.
      Of course some differences do exist between regular humans and metahumans*. For example a metahuman with speed far greater than a regular human probably could make a reasonable judgement that they could knock the hypothetical robbers unconscious without imperiling the victim while a regular human would be less able to make that judgement.

      * For lack of a better word.

    • That is a complicated issue and the Good Samaritan Rule varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but that is not generally how they work.

      The intent of Good Samaritan Rules are specifically to shield people from liability when providing aid. There are certainly some exceptions, such as if the assistance is “reckless and unnecessary”, but generally the point is to ensure people can render reasonable aid without fear of liability for harm occurring during the course of that aid.

      Also, certain Good Samaritan Rules actually impose a duty to aid in an emergency (Vermont for instance). Now, in practice it is normally fulfilled simply by making a 911 call, but it is still there. Unless there is some stronger duty of care present, they would not be required to directly intervene in a situation like a robbery. But protecting another person in immediate threat is normally (again varies by jurisdiction) considered a valid reason for even a lay person to intervene, and a superhere may not be considered a lay person at all.

      So, while there are a lot of details and some questions of the jurisdiction, I think that generally at least if there is threat of life or limb wrapped up in that robbery the superhero would be protected from liability in reasonably intervening in that robbery but would not have a duty to do so.

  5. Neil Parks from Beachwood Ohio

    In the delightful sci-fi TV show “Doctor Who”, the Doctor has “regenerated” ten times. Is each new Doctor responsible for any actions of the previous Doctors, or is the new Doctor considered a new person? (Is “person” even the right word for someone who, like Superman, looks human but is actually part of an alien race from another planet?)

    The Doctor travels through time and space. Therefore it is likely that in the future, the Doctor will travel to the past and take some action that has an effect on the present. Can he be held responsible now for the effect that he has not yet caused, but will cause?

    • Oh this isn’t so much a legal question but a question of how time travel would work. I’ll take this one!

      Suppose in the future you go on to become a criminal and travel back in time and commit crimes and then return to your time to escape punishment. Can they arrest you now even though you are not that person yet? And if they do, doesn’t this violate causality as an imprisoned you would not be able to go on to become a time traveling criminal?

      I think prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is only one time line and that just because you haven’t committed a crime yet you will. But there’s an obvious problem with punishing someone for committing a crime they haven’t committed yet even if you are absolutely certain they will. What if the defense argues that there are different time lines? For that matter, how does the prosecution prove that the perpetrator was indeed from the future and not a different reality with an older version of the accused?

      The obvious problem is a logical one. If there is only one time line then you cannot prevent the crime from happening. Indeed, it has already happened. But suppose the crime were a capital offense and you tried and executed someone for a future offense? In such a case the accused must have been innocent because he couldn’t have gone on to become the time traveling criminal. It’s a real headache, isn’t it? Executing the accused proves his innocence but you can’t bring him back.

      I recommend you watch the movie 12 Monkeys which deals with this problem very well. Bruce Willis’ character travels back in time and commits various crimes in an effort to save people in the future. But his actions in the past were actually what doomed mankind in the first place. In general then we have to think of the crime, it’s investigation and whatever actions taken against the younger version of the same man as part of a single causal loop. A good defense attorney could probably get their client off altogether as it would be clear that nobody inside the causal loop was acting with any free will or else the whole process of you growing older and becoming a criminal should have been preventable.

      • Furthering this idea, what if you went back in time 10 years and committed a crime that has a statute of limitations of say 7 years. Immediately after the crime you travel back to your present day. For you the amount of elapsed time has been but a few hours which is still within the statute of limitations so could you be arrested for the crime upon your arrive back in your present or would the linear time of 10 years past apply.

        On a different note, it would be ill-advised to time travel back to a time when a younger version of yourself exists because any fingerprints or DNA left at the scene would be linked to your innocent younger-self and when you travel back to your present, you may already be in jail.

        In conclusion, if you are going to go back in time and commit a crime that has a statute of limitations be sure to go back the necessary years before your birth so as not to have your infant self thrown in jail.

      • In truth, I fail to see that temporally displaced criminals are in any aspect different than alternate universe criminals. A crime *was* committed, but the perpetrator of the crime is not the individual who “belongs” to that time and reality. That a future version of a person is responsible would (or at least, should) be no different than a trans-dimentional version. And would likely pose the same issues to the court in demonstrating that difference.

        It is worth noting that even in a “only one timeline” arrangement that corresponds to the standard (and incorrect) SF interpretation of causality, there is no causal relationship created by a time-traveling criminal. Some form of duplication (cloning, shapeshifting, mind-transplant, etc) could be the source of the criminal, in which case even the death of the modern individual would not prevent the future crime.

  6. …Another thing I read about in some other law comics, in the event of the death of Uncle Ben, wouldn’t Spider-man also be not liable, or rather have no punishment, due to the simple fact that Uncle Ben dying, in itself, was sufficient punishment?

    • No. “Punishment” here is a legal term and refers to the ability of the courts to force you to pay a fine, perform a service, or do time in prison (and / or have you tortured or executed, depending on the jurisdiction and time and place). Just because you suffer more than you expected to after you committed a crime or failed in your legal duty does not mean that you are suddenly exempt from punishment. A judge COULD decide not to punish Parker in this particular case, but that would be more an act of mercy and compassion on the part of the judge than anything else.

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