In today’s mailbag we have a question that several people have asked about, most recently Thomas, who wrote: “In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible is sued for foiling a suicide attempt. Would a superhero be liable for something like that? Aren’t suicide attempts illegal?”
(If you haven’t seen The Incredibles, you should check it out. Like most Pixar movies, it’s pretty great.)
This is an interesting question with significant ramifications for the story. If the suicide attempt was a crime, then arguably Mr. Incredible had an airtight defense: he was justified in using reasonable force to prevent the commission of a crime. And if the lawsuit was bogus, then maybe the supers wouldn’t have been driven into hiding in the first place. It’s not clear what state The Incredibles takes place in, so rather than give an exact answer we’ll have to look at the broader history of the issue. It’s also not clear to what extent Mr. Incredible was acting as a government official with the benefit of qualified immunity. For simplicity, we’ll assume he was acting as a private citizen.
I. Common Law History
At common law suicide and attempted suicide were both crimes: suicide was a felony and attempted suicide was a misdemeanor. Since a “successful” suicide can’t be punished in the usual way, a more creative sanction was developed: the deceased was given an ignominious burial and his assets were forfeited to the crown. The burial usually took the form of driving a stake through the body and burying it at a crossroads (i.e. not a proper Christian burial). This was the law in the early American colonial era, but by the time of the American Revolution the states had generally moved away from the common law punishments, although suicide was still technically a crime, just an unpunished one. See Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 711-13 (1997).
II. Attempted Suicide and Modern Developments
Most courts held that once suicide itself was no longer punishable, attempted suicide could likewise no longer be punished. May v. Pennell, 101 Me. 516 (1906); Com. v. Dennis, 105 Mass. 162 (1870). At least one court took a different view, however, holding that attempt was still punishable. State v. La Fayette, 15 N.J. Misc. 115 (Ct. Com. Pleas 1937). A few states, such as New York (though it has since repealed it), made attempted suicide a crime by statute even as they rejected the common law crime of suicide. See Darrow v. Family Fund Soc., 116 N.Y. 537 (1889). This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the attempter can be sentenced to jail or fined, whereas punishing a suicide only punishes the innocent (and likely grieving) survivors, which was the main reason for abolishing the common law punishments in the first place.
Coming somewhat closer to the modern era we have State v. Willis, 255 N.C. 473 (1961). This North Carolina case followed the logic of La Fayette. Suicide was a common law crime and is therefore still a felony under North Carolina law, which defines a felony as, among other things, “a crime which was a felony at common law.” Similarly, attempted suicide was still a misdemeanor. The fact that suicide had no punishment was immaterial because North Carolina had a catch-all statute that said “All misdemeanors, where a specific punishment is not prescribed shall be punished as misdemeanors at common law.” In this case, that means fines and imprisonment were theoretically possible, although the court recognized that “This, of course, does not mean that the court may not place offenders on probation, or make use of other state facilities and services in proper cases.”
Interestingly, Willis has not been overturned or distinguished, and the relevant North Carolina laws are essentially still in place. If The Incredibles took place in a similar jurisdiction, a court could agree that attempted suicide was still theoretically a crime and so Mr. Incredible was justified in stopping it.
But what about something more straightforward: are there any jurisdictions left that still criminalize attempted suicide by statute? As far we can tell, no U.S. state still has a statute criminalizing attempted suicide. The Willis / La Fayette approach would seem to be the only way for it to remain a crime.
III. An Alternative Approach
Even if it isn’t a crime where The Incredibles takes place, that doesn’t mean Mr. Incredible couldn’t be justified in stopping the attempt. As the Minnesota Supreme Court held in 1975: “There can be no doubt that a bona fide attempt to prevent a suicide is not a crime in any jurisdiction, even where it involves the detention, against her will, of the person planning to kill herself. Had defendant seized complainant as she was about to leap from a building, and had he kept her locked in a safe place until the authorities arrived, it is clear that a conviction for the crime of false imprisonment could not be sustained.” State v. Hembd, 232 N.W.2d 872, 878 (Minn. 1975). That case was decided in the criminal context, but a civil court could come to the same conclusion.
Regardless of the law of the jurisdiction, Mr. Incredible probably could have beaten the case. Would it have been enough to keep the supers from retiring? Maybe, maybe not, but at least one of the sillier lawsuits in cinema history could have been thrown out.