Firestorm on Trial, Part 4

We’re going to fast-forward several issues from #29 to #45-46.  Although not a whole lot developed in the lawsuit storyline in the intervening issues, a few important events occurred.  (Thanks to reader Methane for the highlights).

Smoak, now apparently out of the job as a result of the damage to computer company, has taken a new job with the same newspaper that employs Ronald Raymond’s father, Ed.  (Recall that Ronald Raymond is one half of the two people that combine to form Firestorm.).  Later, they start dating and become engaged.  Smoak manages to personally serve Firestorm with a complaint in the lawsuit.  And Ed meets Smoak’s lawyer, who points out that if Firestorm doesn’t show up to the trial, the court may issue a default judgment against him.

In issue #45 we get a classic awkward dinner scene: Ed and Felicity have dinner with Ronald and his girlfriend, Doreen.  Here we learn some important details about what happened when Firestorm rescued a freight train (destroying a shipment of computer disks in the process) and foiled some villains atop the WTC (wiping the computers in the building in the process).  First, a bit about default judgments.

I. Default Judgments

Smoak’s lawyer is right.  Since Firestorm was actually and personally served with process, a default judgment would likely be granted if he failed to appear.  N.Y. Civil Practice Law & Rules § 3215(a).  The trick would be enforcing the judgment, since Firestorm doesn’t have a known address or assets.  Smoak had to flag him down just to deliver the complaint.

II. The New Details

From the dinner conversation we learn that insurance policies do not cover “super-heroics” by default, and apparently most people don’t get such coverage.  As a result, the loss of the freight train cargo was not covered by insurance.  We also learn that the company kept backups at the central office in Manhattan.  Finally, we learn that when Firestorm magnetized the roof, not only did it wipe the memory of the computers in the office, it also rendered them nonfunctional (“useless, broken beyond repair”).

This resolves several debates from the comments on prior posts.  Insurance didn’t apply, and there would have been significant damages regardless of the presence or absence of off-site backups.  In fact, the damages may have been significant enough to ruin the company.  Without insurance to cover the loss, there may not have been enough cash on hand to cover replacing the computers in the office fast enough to get the company up and running again (remember: this is the mid-1980s, when an ordinary business desktop cost $8700 in today’s money).  So the company’s bankruptcy and Smoak’s estimate of the damages all seem reasonable, even if her claim against Firestorm still rests on somewhat shaky legal and factual ground.

III.  A Tort and A Crime

Later, in Fury of Firestorm #46, Ed, Ronald, and Felicity are at a computer trade expo in Pittsburgh when suddenly a Lovecraftian horror appears and seizes several people, including Ed.  Rather than risk Felicity seeing him transform into Firestorm, Ronald punches her out cold and then deals with the monster.  The monster was actually an illusion created by some other villains, but let’s take a moment to consider this one.

Ronald’s stated justification for punching Felicity is that he needs to get her to safety (she appears to be reaching for Ed as the monster carries him away).  I don’t think the “I had to punch Felicity to save her” defense is going to fly.  He didn’t even seriously attempt to talk to her or even physically restrain her before assaulting her.  And in any case, while such restraint might be justified in the case of an attempted suicide, I don’t think it could be justified in the case of an attempted rescue of another person, however dangerous.

And Ronald’s actual justification is, of course, nonsense.  While Ronald certainly has a right to save his father and the other bystanders, and he may even have some limited right to keep his identity as Firestorm a secret.  But neither of those rights extend as far as proactively rendering people unconscious in order to protect his secret so that he can transform in a public place.  I didn’t pick up issue #47, but I’m curious to see if the writers addressed Felicity’s reaction after she came-to.

In sum: Ronald straight up committed the tort of battery and some sort of criminal assault.

IV. Conclusion

Smoak’s case is on somewhat firmer ground, and Ronald has further established himself as a grade-A jerk.  If you had much sympathy for Firestorm (or at least Ronald) going into this series, I suspect it has been severely diminished by now.  Stay-tuned for the next post, when we finally get to the big event: the trial!

14 Responses to Firestorm on Trial, Part 4

  1. Is that meant to be the point or not? Is this story pointing out problems with super heroics, or is this just bad writing making a hero turn out worse than intended?

  2. Could Smoak sue the insurance company arguing the damage to her property on the train would have happened without Firestorms intervention?
    If your house is on fire, can the insurance company not cover water damaged caused by firefighters? Would you ever be better off letting your house burn to the ground?

    • There have been cases in Canada where totaling a car by driving it into a deer would have been covered, but totaling the car by running it into the ditch while trying to avoid the deer was not covered.

      • Law in Canada operates on a “Rule of Whatever the Hell a Judge Wants at the Moment” system, not “Rule of Law” (R. v Sharpe) though.

  3. I’m really kind of stunned by Firestorm’s strange approach to superheroing. He’s a molecular manipulator, but he seems so limited in his approach. Why would get turn the roof into a magnet, rather than tar or glue? He also seems to have no idea of what to do if he has to transform publicly. Can’t he run into a bathroom or the kitchen or whatever? For that matter, tell Felicity to hide while you get help.

  4. @OmegaPaladin: That lack of common sense in using powers was really the problem with the whole comic, as well as this storyline in particular. It utterly depends on Firestorm taking the most ridiculous action in any given circumstance, without any thought to other alternatives.

    Back to the legal stuff: Did Smoak actually see Ronnie hit her, or did he hit her from behind? Could Ronnie claim to have panicked? Would that mitigate the offense?

    As another aside, I hate it when people are casually knocked unconscious in any popular fiction. It takes a LOT of force to knock someone out, and significant damage can result. An athlete like Ronnie could very easily kill a woman by hitting her.

    • “That lack of common sense in using powers was really the problem with the whole comic, as well as this storyline in particular.”

      Agreed, and yet a lot of people do strange things. This gets exacerbated in extraordinary situations/periods of stress when even normally smart, reasonable people can wind up doing strange things in the heat of the moment.

      “Could Ronnie claim to have panicked? Would that mitigate the offense?”

      In regards to how heinous his action was and thus possibly the amount of damages, quite likely. Society tends to recognize a difference between something done in cold calculation and something done in the heat of the moment with no time for thought. But it would only affect things like amount of damages and whether punitive damages were in play and how sympathetic the jury feels in judging “squishy” things like pain. It wouldn’t change it from Battery to something else.

      “As another aside, I hate it when people are casually knocked unconscious in any popular fiction”

      Thoroughly agreed. It is certainly possible, but TV and comics makes it look easy. If you do something like that there is a very good chance they won’t be knocked out and a very good chance they will be hurt or even killed. Also, many knockouts don’t last very long. Sustained knockouts do happen, but many knockouts in boxing are “flash knockouts” that last only a few seconds. Similarly in grappling, a blood choke that is properly released right after a blackout will normally result in unconsciousness for only a few seconds.

    • In comics, people fly and transmute matter from one element to another, among other things. The laws of the universe are obviously different from our own. Why wouldn’t biology be different?

      I totally agree with you on the convenient knockout in more realistic fiction, but comic books are built around deeper issues that this.

      As for the knockout being illegal, maybe she gets amnesia too…

      • Hand waving it away with ‘we see that this is different so that must be different’ is a weak defense in my opinion. Some humans in Marvel might be capable of moving through solid objects freely. We still assume that the majority of the population can’t. Indeed, a fundamental point of super hero stories is that they are capable of more than the general public. If we start to assume that the regular humans in them are different from us than super hero stories quickly lose their point.

      • @Gyre, when you consider that this is a trope spread broadly over lots of genres, it’s not so wild. It’s a pulp staple, has continued into action movies, suspense movies, spy movies, etc. And while it’s not realistic, it’s also not fantastic. It’s unlikely that you’ll knock somebody unconscious with one punch, but it’s not impossible. Making this a major issue in a comic book environment is a bit much.

    • He was feeling rushed. He saw his father and another guy grabbed by a tentacled monster and wanted to rush after him as quickly as possible. Ronnie was behind Felicity, both looking at the monster as it grabbed them. When she turned around, Ronnie punched her so he could go behind a structure and transform (leaving her behind the structure).

      I think the writer was trying to show how difficult it would be to keep a secret identity, how far Ronnie would go if he felt his father endangered, and perhaps how foolish an 18 year old can be, but it just comes off as wrong.

      • That’s the long and short of it: The personality who’s actually running the body when Firestorm is in action is a rather impulsive and not all that sophisticated 18-year-old-boy. He actively resists the advice of the much older and more experienced personality (who can “talk” to him but can’t affect Firestorm’s actions directly) much of the time. “I need to stop a big metal thing: what stops metal things? Magnets!” And done.

  5. Writer Gerry Conway is kind of known as, well, let’s just say unconcerned with plausibility or research. He once put Detroit on Lake Michigan and routinely showed the JLA satellite moving above the earth despite being in geostationary orbit.

  6. Pingback: Firestorm on Trial, Part 5 | Law and the Multiverse

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