Green Lantern

So there’s this Green Lantern movie out. Reviews have… not been kind. There may actually be some kind of dogpile effect going on here, i.e. Green Lantern being the movie that it’s awesome to hate on. I mean, sure, it’s bad, but it’s no Rise of the Silver Surfer, which inexplicably got better reviews. Green Lantern’s CGI was admittedly pretty dumb though. Hard to argue with that.

Anyway, what about the legal aspects? Well, there are a couple. Oddly enough, most of them don’t involve much in the way of spoilers this time around. Still, we’ll keep the actual review inside, just in case.

I. Interplanetary Law.

We’ve talked about this one on several previous occasions, and but there’s a slight wrinkle here. In most of the previous cases, the questions have had to do with how and if so to what extent terrestrial laws are enforceable in space. Here, we’re looking at what amounts to an intergalactic police and/or peacekeeping force asserting jurisdiction over the Earth. Can they do that?

Well the US invaded Grenada back in the 1980s. Was that “legal”? It’s actually a bad question. Questions of “legality” don’t really have a lot to do with allegedly sovereign states interacting, there being no sovereign other than the power of the individual countries involved to enforce any particular standard. If the Green Lantern Corps has the power to assert jurisdiction over the volume of space in which the Earth floats—and they unquestionably do—there seems precious little that anyone on Earth can do about it, just like there isn’t a whole lot that the Bahamas could do if the US decided to annex Bimini. In international law, might doesn’t necessarily make right, but there isn’t a whole lot else to reference. So “legal” or not, the Corps can probably do just about whatever it wants. Terrestrial governments may not like it, but issuing an injunction doesn’t seem likely to accomplish all that much.  In the context of the movie, the Corps saved the planet from certain destruction, so it’s doubtful anyone would mind anyway.

II. Employers Suing Employees

The issue with a bit more substance is the question of whether or not Ferris Aircraft can sue Hal for his actions during the test flight. The answer here is a tentative “maybe.” Under most circumstances, employers ability to go after their employees is limited by two factors. First, the doctrine of “respondeat superior” effectively acts as a bar to this sort of action for an employee acting within the scope of an employment. It hardly seems fair for an employer to direct an employee to perform a certain action and then turn around and sue when that action is performed. Second, most employees don’t have nearly enough assets to cover any liability which might be connected to their employment, which is why respondeat superior exists in the first place.

Here though, respondeat superior might not apply. The key is that the doctrine protects employees acting within the scope of their employment. Hal ditched his plane during his test flight, which was definitely started at the behest of his employer, but then he ignored direct instructions from his employer 1) generally to stay within the conditions of the operation, and 2) specifically to abandon his climb. If an employee driving a car ignored analogous instructions, e.g. “Come back to the office now,” the employer could make a good argument that the employee left the scope of his employment, effectively “abandoning his post,” meaning that any resulting liability would be the employee’s alone. Hal ditched his very, very expensive jet after ignoring these instructions, so there’s an argument to be made that he could be liable for the jet.

But it’s vanishingly unlikely that he’d be able to pay for it. Again, the doctrine of respondeat superior exists in order to shift liability to the party most likely to have the necessary resources to pay for it. This has been true since Roman times. We’re talking about an F-35 Lightning II here, approximately $130 million a pop. That’s a lot of overtime. So though Ferris could theoretically sue him for the cost of the plane, their only realistic remedy is just firing him.

III. Sexual Harassment

Of course, the reason they didn’t fire him probably has something to do with the fact that Carol Ferris, the boss’s daughter and rising executive star, is sweet on Hal. In other words, an employment decision is being predicated on an employer’s previous sexual relationship with an employee. Might there be an argument that this constitutes some kind of sexual discrimination or harassment?

Not likely under the facts we’ve got. First, the decision was a positive one, not an adverse one, so there aren’t any real damages to Hal. Second, it isn’t like a bunch of people were being fired but Hal wasn’t because of this relationship. So not only are there no damages to Hal, but no one else would seem to have standing to sue. Still, this kind of thing is dicey under most other circumstances, so it’s definitely not recommended.

IV. Conclusion

Okay, the movie wasn’t that great, and to be honest, it spends so much time in outer space that there isn’t a lot of legal stuff to talk about here. Still, what few legal issues there are seem to be mostly okay. Which some might say is all the move has going for it, unfortunately.

22 responses to “Green Lantern

  1. Jamas Enright

    Some random questions:
    If Hal would admit to flashbacks, would he still be considered responsible for the plane crashing? (The implication was that he should have been able to save it, unless there were extenuating circumstances.)
    Is the military (or whatever Walker represents) liable for what happens to Hector, as he got infected while working for them?
    [And although this isn’t a terrestrial issue, what the heck that Hal gets to keep his ring after he quit? And so sector 2814 is technically without a guardian? What up Corps?]

    (Any change of enabling OpenID as a log in ability?)

    • Alas, WordPress.com, which hosts Law and the Multiverse, does not support OpenID for comments. If it did we would enable it. We’ve thought about moving to self-hosting using WordPress.org, and this is one more nudge in that direction.

      I’ll let Ryan or other readers answer the questions about the movie, since I haven’t seen it yet.

    • Jamas Enright: Is the military (or whatever Walker represents) liable for what happens to Hector, as he got infected while working for them?

      Unfortunately for Dr. Hector Hammond, the U.S. Government is protected from liability under the privilege of sovereign immunity. Unless the U.S. Government waives this privilege, Dr. Hammond is out of luck. Since Dr. Hammond is not a federal employee and at best an independent contractor, he probably isn’t entitled to federal Workers’ Compensation, either.

      • Ryan Davidson

        Actually… the federal government has waived its sovereign immunity in many tort contexts via the Federal Tort Claims Act.

        However, though the federal government might theoretically be subject to suit, I doubt Hammond could recover. The government can plausibly assert that he assumed the risk when he agreed to take the job. True, he didn’t know the precise risks involved, but the thing is no one did, and Hammond did know that. So he knew that neither he nor anyone else had any idea of what he was getting into. Furthermore, the government probably didn’t breach any standard of care, as really, there is no standard of care for first contact situations, and they did everything they knew how to do anyway. So yes, a Hammond tort suit would probably survive a motion to dismiss, but might fail on a motion for summary judgment.

  2. >>If Hal would admit to flashbacks, would he still be considered responsible for the plane crashing? (The implication was that he should have been able to save it, unless there were extenuating circumstances.)

    Hal’s behavior before his flashbacks were still the proximate cause of the crash. Not only did he operate outside the boundaries of the test and ignore direct orders to turn back, but he openly admitted that he was taking his plane someplace where it couldn’t fly. If he had flashbacks during a normal test flight he might have a medical/psychological excuse for a crash, but by intentionally causing a stall he took the responsibility upon himself.

    • Ryan Davidson

      A sudden medical condition like a flashback or PTSD episode can be an effective defense, but only if it hasn’t happened before. If you suddenly and unexpectedly have a seizure which causes you to wreck your car, you can probably beat any resulting lawsuit. But if you’ve been diagnosed with a seizure condition, it isn’t very well controlled, and you drive anyway, you’re still on the hook. Same analysis as voluntary intoxication: sure, you weren’t completely in control of your actions, but you did choose to put yourself in a situation where that could happen.

  3. An off topic comment. Though I haven’t seen the movie and therefore can’t speak for its quality, it’s possible that the market is experiencing saturation and so reviewers feel the freedom (or alternatively the pressure) to give bad reviews to movies that six years ago they would have been praising. Spider-man 3 didn’t feel that much different to me than the first two.

    On Hal’s relationship with Carol, could that be grounds for firing him?

    • I believe Ferris is based in California, so California law probably applies here. The answer mostly depends on whether Hal had a contract with Ferris Aircraft. If there was no contract and the employment was not for a fixed term, then he could be fired at will for any reason or no reason, even out of pure ill-will (unless the firing was illegally discriminatory). Firing someone for getting romantically entangled with the boss would not run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

      If, on the other hand, Hal has a contract with Ferris that only allowed termination for good cause, that has a specific meaning in California. Under the Scott-Pugh standard, good cause means “fair and honest reasons, regulated by good faith on the part of the employer, that are not trivial, arbitrary or capricious, unrelated to business needs or goals, or pretextual. A reasoned conclusion, in short, supported by substantial evidence gathered through an adequate investigation that includes notice of the claimed misconduct and a chance for the employee to respond.” Cotran v. Rollins Hudig Hall Int’l, Inc., 17 Cal.4th 93, 108 (1998).

      Could having a romantic relationship with the boss—a relationship that seems to negatively affect her business judgment—qualify? Possibly.

      • Ryan Davidson

        Particularly as the actual boss is her dad. Carol being more valuable to the company than Hal, firing him would be pretty easy to characterize as a business decision.

        I can certainly argue the other way, but that to me seems the stronger position.

  4. On the suit issue, does Hal being the Pilot of the plane have any baring on whether disobeying orders removes him from the scope of his employment. Doesn’t the pilot’s judgement legally trump those on the ground; it’s not like the orders were given be a Air Traffic Control officer where he would have some obligation to obey.

    • Ryan Davidson

      Here’s the thing though: if he hadn’t departed from the parameters of the exercise, which he knew before he took off and was then ordered to follow, the plane wouldn’t have wrecked. His “judgment” doesn’t trump anything. True, he wasn’t under orders from ATC, but his employer told him to conduct the test in a certain way, and he ignored them. The fact that he was in the plane and they weren’t doesn’t seem to matter.

      • But what of 14 CFR § 91.3 : “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”

      • The purpose of that rule is to prevent pilots in command from pawning their mistakes off on Air Traffic Control or a co-pilot. See, e.g., Airplanes of Boca, Inc. v. U.S. by FAA, 254 F.Supp.2d 1304, 1312 (S.D.Fla. 2003) (holding that “The pilot has final authority, even over air traffic controllers. Even if a controller issues a wrong heading or instruction, the pilot has the primary duty to avoid a hazard that he himself could or should have perceived.”). It doesn’t permit a pilot to disregard orders from his or her employer without employment consequences, nor does it allow an employer to escape liability for the negligence of a pilot-employee.

  5. What about Hal’s defense that he was being paid to test the aircraft and that’s what he did?

    There’s another bit of dialogue worth mentioning. Carol Ferris seemed to think that Hal should have been able to save the plane because she said that there was “nothing wrong with the plane”. I’d call that a mistake in the dialogue because at the time Hal was told to bail out that he couldn’t save it. It seems as though the scripts went through different drafts and at one point the crash was ruled an accident.

    • Ryan Davidson

      Well he wasn’t really testing his plane as much as the drones, and he was given strict parameters for the test. So there isn’t much of a defense there.

      There wasn’t anything wrong with the plane. You do something dumb enough, and any plane will crash. Flying is a rather complicated undertaking, and if you’re falling fast enough, you’re gonna crash even if you do restart the engines. The crash scene actually made sense, as far as that goes.

  6. Two questions here:
    1. Re: Sexual Harassment, and specifically:
    “Second, it isn’t like a bunch of people were being fired but Hal wasn’t because of this relationship. So not only are there no damages to Hal, but no one else would seem to have standing to sue.”

    But several people were fired as a result of Hal’s stunt (which is why they attempt to retaliate later), and are not specifically mentioned to have been re-hired after the contract issues are worked out. Presuming that Hal is the only person who retains his position, could there be some action against Ferris Aircraft suggesting some kind of unlawful, unequal bias which resulted in Hal keeping his job due to his relationship with Carol?

    2. Speaking of the retaliation incident, setting aside the provocation issues of the assault – is Hal on the hook for: undue force in self defense, and, fleeing the site of a crime? The ring allow him to same several people into solid objects and resulting in a lot of property damage and presumed bodily injury. One of the brawlers dents the front-end of a car, the other is thrown through a solid-brick wall. From a physics perspective, the force required to (dent the reinforced, likely steel) front-end of a car, and to punch a five-or-six foot hole in a brick wall is a lot less than you’d need to severely injure (or kill) a human being.
    And does the ring shooting Hal off into space still count him as being a potential fugitive, regardless if it was involuntary or not?

    • As far as the first question goes: I don’t think so. The California courts have held that “a romantic relationship between a supervisor and an employee does not, without more, give rise to a sexual discrimination or sexual harassment claim either under the FEHA or the public policy of the state.” Proksel v. Gattis, 41 Cal.App.4th 1626, 1631 (1996). That is, the other employees don’t have such claims.

      As the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated: “Not all types of sexual favoritism violate Title VII. It is the Commission’s position that Title VII does not prohibit isolated instances of preferential treatment based upon consensual romantic relationships. An isolated instance of favoritism toward a ‘paramour’ (or a spouse, or a friend) may be unfair, but it does not discriminate against women or men in violation of Title VII, since both are disadvantaged for reasons other than their genders.” EEOC Notice No. 915–048 (Jan. 12, 1990)

      Further, there’s no evidence here that Carol created a hostile work environment or suggested that the other employees’ jobs could be saved if they entered into a romantic relationship with her.

      Finally, as I understand it, the fairest thing would have been to fire all of them, Hal included. It’s not as though Hal was kept on instead of the other employees (but correct me if I’m wrong). So while Hal was unfairly favored, the other folks weren’t treated unfairly. They were getting fired either way.

      • I got the impression that the workers were laid off from the plane factory due to Ferris having apparently lost that contract, while Hal is presumably in the development department and would be handled differently. That said, it clearly was not a large firm, and they were well aware of who he was.

    • Regarding Hal and assault, I highly doubt that he’d be found guilty of anything. Both flight from a scene and the big green fist require mens rea. Hal didn’t seem to have any intent on creating the first, or flying to Oa.

  7. Would Hal’s disobeying of instructions become a “frolic and detour” under the doctrine, and if so would this change his situation? Could it effect a third party lawsuit (assuming, say, debris from the plane damaged someone’s property or injured or killed a bystander on the ground).

  8. I’m curious about the interstellar legalities of the autopsy of Abin Sur. What if the Ungarans (Sur’s species) have rules against autopsies like Jewish people do, or require them to be performed in a certain way? What about the legal ownership of any Earth medical or technological innovations developed as a result of studying Sur’s corpse?

    • Well, the biggest factor is, at the time of the autopsy, Abin Sur’s body is the only evidence that Ungarans exist, and no one on Earth knows anything about them. Let alone there being any treaties between any terrestrial governments and any Ungaran governments. International law, and by extension interstellar law, is founded on treaties between states, and customs that have developed in the interactions between them. So in the context of the movies, a complete blank slate.

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