The movie Chronicle came out last week, and it’s pretty good (the Blu-ray version comes out on May 15, 2012). The basic plot is that three teenage boys develop powerful telekinetic abilities, resulting in, well, as the AV Club put it, “This is why teenagers cannot have nice powers.” Obviously a lot of what goes on in the film is plainly illegal, especially toward the end, but there are some more subtle and interesting legal issues to discuss. Spoilers ahead!
(Note: the movie appears to take place in Washington state, so we’ll use Washington state law where possible.)
I. Filming and Privacy Laws
Chronicle is a “found footage” film: everything that occurs onscreen is either ostensibly filmed by one of the characters or by some other “real” camera (e.g. a security camera or news footage). As a result, the characters are constantly filming themselves and other people, both in public and in private. For the most part any privacy issues with this are ignored, although one character, who runs a video blog, does ask permission on one occasion. So what’s the deal here?
As luck would have it, Washington has adopted the four common law privacy torts of intrusion, disclosure, false light, and appropriation, which we discussed in an earlier series on superheroes and privacy law. Mark v. Seattle Times, 96 Wash.2d 473, 497 (1981) (en banc). As the Washington Supreme Court held in Mark, photography in a public place is generally not enough to constitute intrusion:
It is clear also that the thing into which there is intrusion or prying must be, and be entitled to be, private…. On the public street, or in any other public place, the plaintiff has no legal right to be alone; and it is no invasion of his privacy to do no more than follow him about and watch him there. Neither is it such an invasion to take his photograph in such a place, since this amounts to nothing more than making a record, not differing essentially from a full written description, of a public sight which anyone would be free to see.
Mark, 96 Wash.2d at 497 (quoting W. Prosser, Torts 808-09 (4th ed. 1971)). So right off the bat we can disregard most of the filming, since it happens in public places. But there are a couple of non-public examples that are worth discussing in detail.
The first is the one that the film itself draws attention to: the video blogger (Casey) asking for permission to film a friend (Matt) who comes to her house. A person’s house is not a public place, and filming in someone’s house without consent or via deception can be an intrusion into their privacy. See, e.g., Dietemann v. TIME, Inc., 449 F.2d 245 (9th Cir. 1971). But what about filming a guest standing in the doorway? In that case we fall back on the definition of intrusion:
One who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
Mark, 96 Wash.2d at 497 (quoting the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652B (1977)). From the definition of intrusion we can see that it would really depend on the nature of the intrusion. In the film Matt and Casey sort-of discussed their relationship history, but nothing deeply personal or embarrassing was revealed. Nonetheless, Casey was right to ask for permission, just in case. Consent is a defense to intrusion, and since the conversation might have involved Matt’s “private affairs or concerns,” getting consent in advance was a good idea.
The other interesting case was Michael’s attempt to catch Andrew’s first intimate experience with a girl (Monica) on film. This happens at a party at another person’s house, but behind closed doors. This would undoubtedly count as an intrusion into both Andrew and Monica’s privacy. (For those who have seen the movie: what was actually filmed is likewise an intrusion, as reflected in Andrew’s response).
II. Flying without a Permit
As we’ve discussed previously, superheroes who use some kind of aircraft or other device to fly are subject to federal regulations, including aircraft registration. But superheroes who can fly under their own power, such as the characters in Chronicle, aren’t. This is because the regulations only apply to “aircraft,” which are defined in 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) as “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.” (emphasis added). So the protagonists could legally fly all over the United States with some exceptions (e.g. flying low enough would probably subject them to trespassing laws). Traveling to other countries (e.g. Tibet), however, is a different matter.
III. Property Owner Liability
The protagonists receive their powers after finding a large, mysterious glowing rock in a cave near a party at an abandoned building. Could the property owner possibly be liable for anything that happened, or could he or she have been liable if, instead of giving them superpowers, the rock had harmed them?
The answer is “probably not.” “In Washington, the possessor of land has a duty of care to persons on their property based on the entrant’s common law status as an invitee, licensee, or trespasser.” Smith v. Stockdale, 2012 WL 385389 at 6 (Ct. App. Wash. 2012) ; Tincani v. Inland Empire Zoological Soc., 124 Wash.2d 121 (1994) (en banc). “The general rule is that a landowner owes no duty to a trespasser, except to refrain from causing willful or wanton injury to him.” Degel v. Majestic Mobile Manor, Inc., 129 Wash.2d 43, 52 (1996) (en banc). There is an exception for “attractive nuisances” that cause injury to children, but the boys were seniors in high school, and the attractive nuisance doctrine typically tops out at age 12 or 14. Unless the property owner set up the cave and rock as some kind of trap, he or she probably isn’t liable for anything that happened.