In today’s mailbag we have a couple of quick questions from a couple of Christophers.
I. Batman and Bats
The first Christopher had two questions about Batman and actual bats:
In Batman: Year One, and in the film Batman Begins, Bruce has that little gadget that essentially summons swarms of bats, which always looks really cool. But is he responsible for any of those bats dying? Because you just -know- some of them got smushed, or died somehow in the confusion. Also, if someone gets rabies or otherwise gets seriously injured by said bats, is that Bruce’s responsibility?
A. Injuries to the Bats
With regard to the bats themselves: it depends on the kind of bats and the laws of the state. There are some federally protected bat species, and messing with an endangered species in that way would almost certainly run afoul of the Endangered Species Act, which makes it a crime to “harass, harm, pursue, … trap, capture, or collect [an endangered species], or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” 16 U.S.C. § 1532(19).
Even if the bats weren’t endangered, state animal welfare laws may prohibit what Batman was doing. If any of the bats were “unjustifiably injured”, for example, then under New York law that would constitute “overdriving, torturing, and injuring animals.” N.Y. Agriculture & Markets Law § 353. Whether summoning a swarm of bats to confuse or evade criminals makes any resulting bat injuries unjustifiable is a difficult question to answer, but one has to wonder if someone has smart and well-connected as Bruce Wayne couldn’t have come up with a less risky alternative.
B. Injuries to Others
By ‘others’ I mean innocent bystanders. We’ll assume self-defense, defense of others, or some other justification applied to any injuries inflicted on the criminals.
Ordinarily the owners of wild animals (such as bats) are strictly liable for injuries caused by those animals, assuming the injury is a result of the kind of danger that the animal poses. Bites and rabies transmission from bats certainly fall into that category. The trick is that Batman isn’t necessarily the owner of these bats. There is a bat cave on the Wayne Manor property, but I don’t remember if it’s clear that these particular bats came from there. Merely exercising some degree of control over the wild animal may not be enough to result in strict liability.
However, even if a more typical negligence standard were applied, Batman could still lose out. He may be justified in using force against his attackers, self-defense will not necessarily prevent a negligence claim. Would a reasonable person exercising ordinary care summon a swarm of wild bats in a crowded city? I think a reasonable person might have opted for a less risky method.
II. Animal Transformations
The second Christopher had a question about the magician Zatanna turning people into animals:
I was reading Zatanna and she has a habit of turning people into animals (briefly, in one case, just to get rid of annoying guests.). Later her father transforms someone into an inanimate doll? This seems like assault … Can she be arrested and/or sued?
I think the answer is yes, such a transformation would be both a tort and a crime. If the transformation were effectively permanent—it could not be treated and the responsible magician refused to undo it—it would be murder, particularly if the animal form was truly an ordinary animal and not the person’s mind trapped in an animal’s body. From a legal point of view, the person would be dead. Their cardiopulmonary and brain functions would have permanently ceased, since their body had been effectively destroyed.
In the case of a temporary transformation, that would be a very serious injury, albeit one that the victim recovered from. That would affect the sentencing or damages, but it would still be a crime. You might think: hey, she changed the victim back, no (permanent) harm, no foul, right? But what if Zatanna had performed the transformation and then been killed or incapacitated? Or if Zatanna and the victim had been separated? We don’t want to encourage her to take the risk that she might not be able to change someone back. This is similar to why factual impossibility is not a defense to an attempted crime: the defendant could not actually have committed the crime they were trying to, but we don’t want to let them off the hook just because they got lucky.
And then there’s the psychological harm of being turned into an animal, even temporarily. So even a temporary transformation would be a criminal assault or battery (depending on the term the particular state uses) and a tortious battery.