The Incredibles

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  A few states, such as New York (though it has since repealed it), made attempted suicide a crime by statute even as they rejected the common law crime of suicide.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.

IV. 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.

23 responses to “The Incredibles

  1. Removing the suicide aspect, if I remember correctly, the guy Mr. Incredible saved was wearing a neck brace and a cast, complaining that Mr. Incredible caused him injury. So assuming it wasn’t a suicide, if the guy had fallen by accident, could Mr. Incredible be held civilly or criminally liable for injuring someone while he was saving their life?

    When I was learning CPR more than a decade ago in Ohio, the instructor told us that the state had a Good Samaritan law that would protect us if we broke someone’s ribs (which is common) while performing CPR. Wouldn’t Mr. Incredible be protected by such a law?

    • That’s changing the facts a bit, but the answer is that he could still probably have beaten it. In fact, if the fall was accidental, he’d actually have a much better case. Here’s the thing: if you do something, and someone else is injured as a result, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re liable for their injuries. You need to have breached a duty to them, i.e. acted unreasonably, or have actually intended the injury for there to be liability.

      It’s clear that Mr. incredible didn’t intend the injury, so that’s out. And if you’re trying to save someone from falling to their death, it’s going to be hard to say that making a save which results in some non-mortal injuries is unreasonable. Considering that if one did nothing the person was going to die, that would seem to leave a lot of leeway in taking action to save them.

  2. Melanie Koleini

    Mr. Incredible also caused a train reck that injured alot of other people. Even if a Good Samaritan law protected Incredible from the guy that was trying to kill himself, couldn’t the people on the train sue for damages?

  3. “Mr. Incredible also caused a train reck that injured alot of other people.”

    Actually, this would be an interesting example for discussing the implications of collateral damage during a superhero fight.

    • As is so often the case, we fall back on reasonableness. From the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 75:

      “An act which is privileged for the purpose of protecting the actor from a harmful or offensive contact or other invasion of his interests of personality subjects the actor to liability to a third person for any harm unintentionally done to him only if the actor realizes or should realize that his act creates an unreasonable risk of causing such harm.”

      Basically, if Mr. Incredible is privileged to use self-defense (or, by extension, defense-of-others), then bystanders who are unintentionally harmed in the process can’t sue Mr. Incredible unless his actions created an unreasonable risk of such harm. Did his actions seem reasonable to you? I must confess it’s been a while since I saw the movie, so I don’t remember if that scene was cast as “Mr. Incredible saves the day and people whine about it” or “Mr. Incredible does more harm than good.”

      • The circumstances of the train wreck were: Bomb Voyage distracts Mr. Incredible by planting a bomb on Buddy just as he tries to demonstrate his rocket boots. Mr. Incredible superleaps to catch hold of Buddy and pull the bomb off. Both the bomb and Mr. Incredible fall on a set of elevated light rail tracks where the bomb explodes. Mr. Incredible demonstrates that he’s more powerful than a speeding locomotive, preventing the train from actually crashing, but causing minor injuries to pretty much everyone on board from the sudden stop. Bomb Voyage escapes with the loot in the confusion.

  4. “Mr. Incredible also caused a train reck that injured alot of other people.”

    I would think that since there was no intent involved on Mr. Incredible’s part, he would not be held liable for the train wreck. Wouldn’t the liability for the damage to the train tracks fall to Bomb Voyage?

    • As I recall, the villain was the one who actually caused the train wreck, i.e. Mr. Incredible’s actions resulted in damage and injury, but things would have been markedly worse if he hadn’t intervened. Given that, potential plaintiffs are going to have a really tough time making any recovery, because it’s going to be very difficult to construe his actions as “unreasonable” in light of the circumstances.

  5. Mr. Incredible did not know that he was foiling a suicide attempt. He just knew that someone was falling to his death – it could have been an accident, or even a murder attempt for all he knew. Would he not have been even more negligent if he had not saved the falling person?

    • A follow-up question – assuming suicide is not illegal where the save took place, would Mr. Incredible have the same “preventing the commission of a crime” defense if he (incorrectly) thought that the man was pushed off the building and that he was therefore stopping a murder (which is a crime pretty much anywhere)? How much does state of mind come into play? If a person incorrectly thinks he is stopping a crime, is he still safe? On the other side, what if he does something that causes injury but that action also stops a more serious crime he did not know about? (Taking the movie again, let’s say Mr. Incredible didn’t know that the car he stopped with the tree had bad guys in it.) Could he still claim that he stopped a crime, therefore the injury was justified? What if he was just unsure – for example, if Mr. Incredible knew the color of the car the bad guys were in but could not positively identify it, and so wrecked it hoping that it was the right one?

      • In both the criminal law and tort contexts, self-defense and defense-of-others generally only require a reasonable belief in the imminent danger, not necessarily a true one. See, e.g., People v. Goetz, 68 NY 2d 96 (1986); Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 63,65,76. The question then is whether Mr. Incredible’s belief that the falling person was the victim of attempted murder was reasonable (i.e. whether an ordinary person in his shoes would have thought the same); the fact that he was wrong doesn’t matter so long as it was a reasonable mistake.

        Now, suppose Mr. Incredible thought it was not attempted murder but rather an accidental fall. Then there would still be a privilege in tort law, per Restatement § 892D:

        “Conduct that injures another does not make the actor liable to the other, even though the other has not consented to it if
        (a) an emergency makes it necessary or apparently necessary, in order to prevent harm to the other, to act before there is opportunity to obtain consent from the other or one empowered to consent for him, and
        (b) the actor has no reason to believe that the other, if he had the opportunity to consent, would decline.”

        Notably, however, that rule does not apply to attempted suicide. § 892D, comment a. If Mr. Incredible knows it’s an attempted suicide, then the privilege would be based on preventing the commission of a crime. Id. That comment is really the basis for the analysis in the post.

    • “Would he not have been even more negligent if he had not saved the falling person?”

      No, in the great majority of jurisdictions he would have no duty to rescue the person. He could have stood idly by and watched them fall to their death whether it was murder, an accidental fall, or a suicide. That’s one of the reasons why the law creates these privileges and defenses: it doesn’t give people an incentive to rescue others but at least it takes away some of the potential liability.

      • Isn’t it true even police don’t have a duty to rescue per se? I mean, they’d probably be fired ASAP without a good explanation, but they can’t be charged for it. I’d assume Mr. Incredible would fall under that category as well.

        To be fair to the plot of the movie, I figured even if the lawsuits in question were ludicrous, once it opened the idea of “sue the government by way of the supers” (they seemed to be at least semi-official state actors) the flood of suits, ridiculous or otherwise, would become a massive expense to keep dealing with.

        In an unrelated thought, the “no capes” montage did raise one legal question for me. Given the history of how badly those things worked out, if the Incredibles had received caped costumes and gotten injured by them, would they have had a case for suing Edna Mode? Or for that matter, any heroes after the first few unfortunates?

  6. You didn’t analyze enough states. Oregon has “Death with Dignity”, AKA physician-assisted suicide. I don’t believe there have yet been any cases of interference with a patient’s execution of their lawful self-termination, but I can only assume it would be a tort of SOME kind, battery or false imprisonment.

    • I believe there are three states that allow assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington, and Montana. I don’t know about Montana’s procedures, but Oregon and Washington require very specific procedures (e.g. two doctors must confirm the terminal diagnosis, two witnesses must confirm the request, and the suicide itself is carried out through a lethal dose of medication, not jumping off a building). So the laws wouldn’t apply to the situation in the movie directly.

      Nor does the existence of an exception to the law against assisted suicide necessarily mean that suicide itself is no longer a crime. It could very well be that there is only a similar, narrow exception.

      Regardless of the legality of suicide, however, “At common law, even a private person’s use of force to prevent suicide was privileged.” Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 US 261, 298 (1990) (Scalia, concurring). Other cases seem to indicate that even if suicide is not a crime, it’s still disapproved of, and so there is a policy supporting preventing it, even by force.

      So I think there are arguments to be made that, even in a state like Oregon or Washington, a person may still be privileged to use reasonable force to prevent a non-physician-assisted suicide.

  7. I understand that The Incredibles is based in America, and so American law is used, however as a side note, if it had happened in England then there would be no law suit as attempted suicide, or suicide itself, is not a crime. At least as far as I’m aware.
    I know a few who have tried and one who succeeded and have not heard about any legal aspects. Actually over here you get a higher standing with the mental health service and more psychological help.

    • Yes, the Suicide Act of 1961 legalized suicide and attempted suicide in England and Wales. So it’s less clear whether Mr. Incredible could invoke prevention of a suicide as a defense.

      However, if Mr. Incredible thought that the person had been pushed or had fallen accidentally, I assume (but do not know; I’m not an expert on English law) he would still be privileged to use reasonable means to save the person’s life.

  8. I love the Incredibles. As I recall, they were driven into hiding not because they were losing the lawsuits, but because the government was getting sick of PAYING for the lawsuits. The Superheroes’ cases were being paid for by the government, and the government found that public anti-hero sentiment coupled with the defense cost of thousands of lawsuits (Regardless of how frivolous they were) was just too much to bear. It was cheaper to hide the heroes than it was to pay for their legal defenses.

    • That would also serve to undermine the “not a government agent” argument made in the original post (also the fact that he clearly works closely with the police – helping devise strategy, responding to APBs, etc). After all, if Mr Incredible and the rest of the supers weren’t government agents to some extent, why would the government be in any way responsible for covering hte cost of the judgments against them?

  9. Incidentally if I sued Mr. Incredible for anything, it would be for his carelessness in not disarming Bomb Voyage. I’d think getting the explosives away from the supervillain would be his first priority.

  10. We’re forgetting one possibility here: That the lawsuit when it came up was exploited by someone out to get the heroes, possibly a villain who thought he or she saw a chance to get some revenge on Mister Incredible and gamed the system, perhaps indirectly.

    It’s possible that this villain had a limited scope in mind when the plan started, just getting Incredible to smart a little, and then it went out of control from there. In terms of potential unintended consequences when one rides a case, consider 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), 558 U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 876…

  11. In regards to some of the above posts, the passengers of the train DID sue Mr Incredible, successfully in fact, after the suicide-guy won and precedent was set. Part of the chain of ALL supers being sued (though I think the government footed the bill, hence the Act banning supers- too damn expensive).

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