Okay, so it’s not exactly a comic book movie, but Super 8 does come from director J.J. Abrams, and this, like most of his other work, is still in the basic genre ballpark, so what the hell.
Yes, it’s a good movie. But you can read other reviews for that stuff. Spoilers inside.
I. Superseding Local Jurisdiction
One of the most obvious legal events in the movie is the Air Force taking control of the crash site. This is actually permissible under two independent theories.
First, railroads have long been recognized as being part of interstate commerce, and were the subjects of many important Commerce Clause cases. In Southern R. Co. v. U.S., 222 U.S. 20 (1911), the Supreme Court held that Congress could regulate the safety features on railway cars, even those that did not cross state lines, because railroads are an instrumentality of interstate commerce. In Houston E. & W.T. v. U.S., 234 U.S. 342 (1914), better known as the Shreveport Rate Case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Interstate Commerce Commission, now part of the Surface Transportation Board within the Department of Transportation, could regulate freight train shipping rates which were purely internal to a particular state, because the Commerce Power permitted the federal government to reach purely intrastate activities which had an effect on interstate commerce. The National Transportation Safety Board is chiefly responsible for investigating railroad accidents, so even if it hadn’t been the Air Force sweeping in, it’s likely that some federal agency would have shooed local authorities away. As the NTSB was established in 1967, it would have been around in the 1980s, when the movie was set.
But more than that, when the military decides that something is critical to national security–and secret programs about alien life forms probably are–they can probably do this sort of thing too. As a matter of practice, the military can do pretty much whatever it damn well pleases. This was very true in the Cold War, became less true after the fall of Communism, but has started to be more true again in this era of the Patriot Act. So if the Air Force or Army were to descend on a train wreck and assert federal jurisdiction, it’s unlikely that much could be done about it. Doing something about it would likely involve filing a lawsuit, and it’s likely that the military could be in and out of the area before a court could do anything about it, and even if a local federal judge went into overdrive, the JAG corps or other DoD lawyers could easily keep things tied up in hearings long enough for the operation to be concluded. So if the military wants to evacuate a town? Even if they aren’t legally allowed to do it, they could probably effect the evacuation before anyone could protest, and a fiat accompli is harder to fight judicially than a proposed or pending action.
II. Breaking the Chain of Causation
The movie opens at what seems to be the funeral meal for Joe’s mother. Midway through the scene, a man drives up, looking like hell, and makes his way into the house. There is an immediate disturbance, and the man is promptly escorted from the premises by Joe’s dad, a deputy sheriff, in handcuffs, and driven off in the police cruiser. We don’t learn exactly why, and it seems likely that Joe’s dad was simply overreacting, as there doesn’t appear to have been a crime involved in that scene.
We learn later that the man was Louis Dainard–father to Alice Dainard, the female lead–and a co-worker to Joe’s mother. Turns out Louis was scheduled to work the day Joe’s mother died, but missed work because he was drunk. Joe’s mother filled in for him and was killed in an industrial accident. Joe’s dad and Louis seem to have become enemies as a result, but we never learn the specifics. Eventually, Louis apologizes for missing work and Joe’s dad acknowledges that it was an accident and no one’s fault.
This isn’t just the right personal and ethical result, it’s also the right legal result. True, under a “but for” analysis, Louis’ failing to show up for work was the cause of Joe’s mother filling in for him, and if she hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t have been killed. Arguably then, Louis caused her death. But the legal system is pretty uncomfortable with pushing causation that far. This kind of “for want of a nail” analysis is generally disfavored, and any court would refuse to recognize it as the proximate cause of Joe’s mother’s death.
Remember, there are four elements of a tort: 1) breach, 2) of a duty, 3) which is the proximate cause, 4) of a legally cognizable injury. It’s debatable whether Louis had a duty not to drink so much that he missed work–even if he did, he probably didn’t owe that duty to Joe’s mom–but he did breach that duty, which was the ultimate cause of her death. But because it wasn’t the proximate cause, i.e. connected closely enough for a court to recognize the connection as sufficient to ground liability, there is no tort here.
There are a few different theories of what constitutes “proximate cause.” The leading one is “foreseeability,” i.e. a particular outcome must be reasonably foreseeable from a particular act for liability to attach. For example, if one throws an apple core out of a moving vehicle and strikes someone, the injury is sufficiently tied to the action to support causation. But if the apple falls in a field of vegetables but just so happens to be infected with a dangerous strain of e. coli which contaminates the crop and causes food poisoning two states over… that injury is not a reasonably foreseeable result of littering. No court would permit liability to attach. This is the theory adopted by the Restatement 2d of Torts.
The Restatement 3d of Torts adopts what is referred to as the “scope of the risk” rule, i.e. defendants are only liable for those injuries which fall within the scope of the risk of a particular action. Restatement 3d of Torts 29 says that “An actor’s liability is limited to those harms that result from the risks that made the actor’s conduct tortious.” The example on Wikipedia is a good one: if a father gives his child a loaded gun, and the child then drops the gun and injures the plaintiff’s foot, the father cannot be held liable. True, giving the loaded gun to a child is negligent, but the plaintiff would have been injured in a similar way regardless of what object the father gave the child, and doing that isn’t negligent. So the mere fact that a negligent act caused the plaintiff’s injuries is not sufficient to ground liability, because the defendant’s negligent wasn’t of the sort that actually caused the injury.
Under either analysis, Louis is off the hook. Joe’s mother being injured in an industrial accident was probably not reasonably foreseeable by anyone, and certainly not by Louis, who wasn’t even present at the time of the accident. And if Louis’ negligence was the cause of her death, the risk in negligently failing to show up for work is that the employer will be inconvenienced, not that another employee will die in an industrial accident.
This particular movie isn’t exactly chock full of legal issues, but the few that it does touch on it handles well. When writers get the details correct, it helps the story, because if either of these had been handled incorrectly, it would have resulted in fairly significant plot holes. Nice work!
Also, it’s actually a good movie. Go see it.