Iron Man 3: Property Law and Medical Experimentation

We started talking about Iron Man 3 on Monday with some questions sent to us by a lucky reader who caught a sneak preview. Now we’ll take a look at two more issues: property law and medical experimentation.

Without giving too much away, we can say that at one point in the movie, Stark gives out his home address on live TV. Shortly thereafter, the press and bad guys show up and things start to get a bit hairy. The movie seems to assume that this would not have happened if Stark hadn’t given out his address. That strikes us as. . . dodgy. Further, the movie takes some inspiration from the Iron Man: Extremis storyline, and though the details of Extremis seem to vary quite a bit from the source material, both involve experimental medical injections. So we’ll talk about those issues as well.

I. Property Recording

Again, things really start to go bad for Tony and Pepper after Tony reveals his home address on live TV. The movie strongly implies that before this happened, they were more-or-less safe.

Simply put, that’s not how that works.

First of all, in-universe, Tony Stark is one of the most newsworthy individuals in the country. Any journalist who can’t dig up the home address of a celebrity of that magnitude inside of an hour should turn in his press pass immediately for basic failure of Shoe Leather Journalism 101. This is as much a logistical observation as a legal one, because in real life, paparazzi routinely camp outside celebrity homes in the hope getting a few shots to sell, and there’s no reason to think the same wouldn’t be true in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’re talking something as simple as following the guy home. Once one person does it, the information is out there.

But second, even if the press were keeping that information to themselves—and they generally do—it turns out that property ownership is mostly a matter of public record.  We say mostly because some counties (though not Los Angeles County, as far as we can tell) allow residents to make their property records private or at least semi-private.  For example, in St. Louis County one can request to block lookup of one’s property by the owner’s name.  And in any county one can make it harder to find where one lives by having a shell corporation own the property, as Steve Jobs did when he needed a home in Tennessee.  But a surprising number of celebrities do not take any of these precautions, and there’s always more direct investigatory routes.

In any case, like many counties, Los Angeles County has put its property tax assessment information online. Anyone who wants to can look up the property card for every single property in the county without leaving their desk. Granted, LA’s interface is a bit less helpful than some other municipalities—some will even let you search by owner*—but figuring out the ownership situation of every property on a given street would be a matter of an afternoon’s research. You can zoom in on the map and request the title card for any plot you like. Don’t bother trying to find the actual house with that, though.  The house in the movie is all CGI and film sets; exterior shots were filmed at the protected Point Dume area.  The house was allegedly inspired by a real house in La Jolla, but that’s in San Diego County.

* LA allows searching by owner with an application (which requires giving a reason for needing such access, such as being a real estate agent) and the payment of a fee.

The reason this is the case is that most US jurisdictions still stick to recording as a way of keeping track of property ownership, and the property record is, as one might imagine, a matter of public record. It’s only recently that municipalities have started putting this information online, and it’s as much for their own convenience as for the public’s. But even a hundred years ago, one could get a street address and trundle on down to the record office and look at any property card one wished, no questions asked. You might be asked to pay a nominal fee to copy anything, but that’s about it. Even a jihadist in a cave in Afghanistan could have figured out where Stark lived as long as the cave had access to the net.

So no. If Tony was in danger at home, it had nothing to do with revealing his home address to the media. The media already knew it, and interested parties could have found it with a bit of trivial legwork, possibly not even having to leave their office.

II. Medical Experimentation

Then there’s the question of how in the hell the villains got where they are. Some mild spoilers here, but one of the main villains is Dr. Aldrich Killian, the head of Advanced Idea Mechanics, apparently some kind of privately-funded “think tank”. In the comics, A.I.M. is actually related to Hydra, but whatever. He’s working on Extremis, which is some kind of injectable serum which, on the plus side, can apparently cure almost any wound short of decapitation or the destruction of one’s heart, with the relatively mild negative of occasionally making you and everyone in a ten-foot radius slightly dead. So much for that.

The question here is how in the world this thing ever got to the point of human trials when the side effects showed up when it was used on a houseplant, much less an animal model. We talked about the drug approval process in detail in our post on Limitless, where an experimental intelligence-boosting drug was the main plot point. Suffice it to say that the FDA would be unlikely to even want to heard about something as wild as Extremis, making even privately-funded research highly illegal. Now there seems to be some military involvement, and as we discussed in the chapter on administrative law in our book, that would potentially change the analysis somewhat. Governments can and do engage in secret medical research, and given the rather suspiciously close relationship between the Pentagon and certain defense contractors, a black-ops military research program does seem somewhat plausible.  And in the movie A.I.M. is described as being built on defense contracts, and it seems to have access to wounded veterans, and as discussed on Wednesday, the Vice President does appear to be involved somehow.

In short, the more A.I.M. is working with the military, the more it’s likely to be able to fly under the FDA’s radar. But as human experimentation is highly regulated in the civilian world, one doubts that even the Vice President’s involvement would be able to effectively shield such a program otherwise. The VP, after all, has no actual executive power, and regulatory agencies tend not to care very much what the VP thinks about anything.

In the military world, however, there is a lot of legal latitude for human experimentation that would otherwise be illegal.  A major case is United States v. Stanley, in which the Supreme Court held that an Army master sergeant who was secretly administered LSD as part of Project MKUltra could not sue the government because his injuries were service-related.  483 U.S. 669 (1987).  Whether the Extremis volunteers were doing something service-related is difficult to say.  We’d have to do a frame-by-frame of the shots of military records to be sure, but it seemed like maybe they had been discharged after their injuries, but maybe not, or maybe they were reenlisted in order to take part in the “study.”

But regardless of any government liability, A.I.M. itself is a private think tank, and the government’s immunity under exceptions to the Federal Tort Claims Act and Bivens described in Stanley may not extend to A.I.M. (as a government contractor) or its employees.  Furthermore, at a minimum, any doctors involved would almost certainly lose their licenses.

III. Conclusion

So here we’ve got two issues which the movie doesn’t seem to handle very well. There’s no reason to think that the location of Tony Stark’s residence would not be known to either the press or the villains, as he’s an important public figure, and property ownership is a matter of public record. And A.I.M.’s work with Extremis would seem to violate just about every FDA regulation out there and would probably result in liability for somebody, just maybe not the government itself.

15 responses to “Iron Man 3: Property Law and Medical Experimentation

  1. Philo Pharynx

    I don’t think the flap about Tony’s address was really about them not knowing where he lived. It was more the fact that he challenged the bad guy to come kill him. Taunting supervillains isn’t very smart.

  2. Todd Gardiner

    I didn’t really read into Stark’s challenge that his house was a “secret location”. More that he was not at direct risk until he issued a direct challenge to the Mandarin. A challenge which the Mandarin was only too happy to accept, as the previews show.

    Perhaps it helped Maya Hansen show up at his doorstep, however, just in time to be part of the mayhem.

  3. Christopher L. Bennett

    Come to think of it, in the first movie, didn’t he sleep with a reporter in his home?

    I agree with the other commenters that it’s not so much that the reporters hadn’t known where Tony lived as that they knew there was going to be a story happening at his house, particularly if the Mandarin accepted his invitation. Then again, for the sake of argument, if any celebrity could find ways to keep paparazzi from following him home, it would be Tony Stark. He’d probably rig a hologram generator or something to send them on a false trail. Or, these days, just fly home as Iron Man. Though, wait, he doesn’t have a stealth suit yet.

    How about the legality of Tony threatening to kill someone, even a terrorist, on live TV? It’s safe to assume the threat was in earnest and not just trash talk. And what about the legality of effectively inviting a terrorist to strike at a location within a populated area?

    • WannaBlessedBe

      What ‘populated location’? Judging from the establishing shots, there’s nothing within /miles/ of Tony’s house except water and sand.

      I do agree with the others that it was less a matter of ‘knowing his address’ and more a matter of the explicit challenge.

      • Christopher L. Bennett

        It was populated by Pepper, at least. And it was a residential area, so I imagine the same laws would apply.

    • There was a recent discussion about US federal “kill lists” on CBC Radio’s news/current affairs show, The Current. How hard would it be for Tony to get word from the White House – accurate word – on whether or not the Mandarin’s on one or more of the lists discussed in that interview, as well as permission in writing via either e-mail attachment, fax or hardcopy via courier to pursue that particular target?

  4. Melanie Koleini

    Using Extremis on humans is clearly illegal but I don’t think that really matters to the plot. Dr. Killian is a supper villain obsessed with secrecy. Killian could have done his experimentation in another country. But even more likely, he did it in secret. His test subjects (at least the survivors) were willing to break the law at his orders.

  5. Gotta agree with the address thing not being an issue of “nobody knew where he lived” but more the press getting REALLY interested in tailing him once he made his taunt to the Mandarin. Let’s face it, any journalist who has info about the location of a possible upcoming attack on a celebrity who didn’t at least stick around in a nearby legal location to see what happened would probably get punted from any news agency out there.

    As for Extremis and medical testing, I’m quite comfortable with assuming the whole business was highly illegal to begin with. Even the military running it as a covert research project would probably do better for a facility than a basement like the initial trial film showed. It’s possible they might have started in a legal manner during the preliminaries (the interviews and such) and then A.I.M. “skipped ahead”, but if it had been done as part of the military you’d think “this person was exposed to a drug that can cause people to blow up” would have come up in the investigation of the first “bomber”. If it’s completely illegal the cover up makes more sense.

  6. Another category for address redaction from public records is law enforcement. Generally top official’s records are locked. Good ol’ Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona screwed up doing his and his address got released, he then tried to sue reporters over his screw-up.

  7. How would Stark’s challenge affect his property insurance? (Let’s that assume that bad guys blowing up your house is not excluded, otherwise it’s a pretty pointless question). Could the insurance company be off the hook for paying a claim because Stark had invited the attack?

    • On a related note – if any of the people present had been seriously injured, who would be responsible for paying medical claims? One person challenged the bad guys to attack, one person didn’t but still lived there, and one was just a visitor – would they be treated differently?

      • Melanie Koleini

        Just to make it more complicated, the visitor was involved in a conspiracy with the attackers.

    • It’s been a while since I read my policies, but I seem to recall that car and house insurance have exclusions for “acts of war or insurrection”, or maybe that’s life insurance. But Tony probably just goes self-insured and posts a bond with DMV showing he has coverage. Most, if not all, municipal governments are self-insured this way, though that might be a regrettable decision the way that budgets are fluctuating and shrinking.

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  9. Mister Andersen

    The badguy here subborns the VP much as the one from Into Darkness does the Section 31 minion: by offering medical aid.

    The scene where we realise the VP is involved in the conspiracy shows us his daughter is missing a leg. Thus in return for being able to (openly) administer Extremis to her he agrees to be AIM’s puppet for at least the remainder of POTUS’s term and then — bouyed by the administration’s ability to bring the Mandarin to account — his own.

    While one imagines AIM benefits from increased military contracting, I suspect it also intended to favourably influence all manner of civil policy.

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