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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.