Guest Post: The End of The Dark Knight Rises

Today we have a guest post from Mike Lee, who wrote an analysis of an issue from the end of The Dark Knight Rises.  Just describing the issue is a pretty big spoiler, so I’ll save the description for after the jump.

The Dark Knight Rises and the “Death” of Bruce Wayne

—by Mike Lee

My friend Dan and I are big fans of the site, so when he had a question about The Dark Knight Rises, we researched and discussed it a bit, and thought other readers might be interested too! Thanks for giving us a fun way to study some of the finer points of law. 

Dan emailed me the following question:

Batman is presumed dead after all of Gotham witnesses his death. Sure. But why is Bruce Wayne legally declared dead as well? Only four people (who aren’t talking) know his identity, and this is a man who has a habit of disappearing for nearly decades at a time. Wouldn’t you expect the courts to be a little more reticent than that, especially given that they screwed up the “declared dead” bit in the first film?

My response:

Ordinarily, a person can be declared dead either (1) by presenting remains such as a corpse or skeleton, (2) being continuously absent and out of communication for a set period of time (seven years at common law), or (3) showing that the person was in imminent peril of death and has not returned.

In Bruce Wayne’s case, we know there’s no body because his butler, Alfred, thinks Bruce died in a nuclear explosion. If there were some other body that turned up, Alfred’s suspicions would be greatly raised. (I suppose it’s possible that despite Alfred’s really thinking Bruce is dead, he faked a body to expedite the declaration process. But there’s nothing to suggest any motive for that.)

So can the Wayne Estate have Bruce declared dead without a body? As is Law and the Multiverse’s convention for Gotham, let’s look at New York law.

By statute, New York has reduced the common law’s seven-year period of required continuous absence to three years. N.Y. Est. Powers & Trusts Law § 2-1.7, available at http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/EPT/2/1/2-1.7.  Alternatively, the statute establishes that exposure “to a specific peril of death” might suffice to establish death in absentia, even if the three-year statutory period has not yet run. Id. at § 2-1.7(b).

New York’s three-year timetable doesn’t help the Wayne estate much. So the question is whether Bruce has been “exposed to a specific peril of death” so as to meet the requirements of § 2-1.7(b).

Now, Batman clearly meets the requirements—a plane exploded with him apparently in it, so he could easily be declared dead without a body. This is the classic scenario for “specific peril”: missing planes, wreckage of boats found, houses burned to the ground, that sort of thing.

But this doesn’t help us much with Bruce Wayne, because the courts don’t know he was in the nuclear explosion that consumed the not-a-Batwing-Bat-plane. So what might count as “specific peril of death”?

The wholesale sacking of Gotham might. In fact, under New York precedent it probably does. A 1952 New York Surrogate Court case permitted a finding of presumptive death under the common law standard because the people in question “disappeared under circumstances of fatal danger.” In re Podkowik’s Estate, 114 N.Y.S.2d 710, 712 (Sur. Ct. 1952). They were of Jewish descent, were in Lithuania starting in 1939, and had not been heard from since the Nazi occupation of that country. Id. at 711. The court mandated a continued search, but held that “no fixed period of time is necessary where the facts demonstrate that death occurred in some clearly identified disaster.” Id. at 712 (internal citations omitted).

While no systematic genocide occurred in Gotham, we know that the city was overrun for several months with widespread executions, lootings, murders, and violence. We also know that these incidents were focused on the wealthy such as Mr. Wayne due to Bane’s class-warfare approach. In the wake of tens of thousands of deaths, with intentional executions disproportionately focused on wealthy scions such as Bruce Wayne, I think it’s reasonable to consider Wayne to have been in “specific peril of death,” especially in light of the way In re Podkowik’s Estate treats its common law case.

The precedent’s not perfectly on point; note that the persons in question in In re Podkowik’s Estate were in a foreign country, and that they had been absent for thirteen years. (The case was not about their estates, but about their eligibility to inherit Mr. Podkowik’s.) And of course the Holocaust was a uniquely devastating event in world history. But the reasoning seems to apply here: widespread violence and membership in a targeted class during a “clearly identified disaster” permitted a finding of presumptive death.

So while there’s no body, and while the three-year statutory period hasn’t run, I think New York courts would likely declare that Bruce had faced such “specific peril of death” in Bane’s No Man’s Land that this forms a sufficient basis to declare him dead in absentia, and to begin the disposition of his estate.

My thanks to the helpful post by Irwin Scherago, Declaration of Death of a Missing Person: Obtaining Preliminary Letters Testamentary While Waiting for Declarationavailable at http://www.mlg.com/news_events/attorney_articles/missing_person.html (last visited May 26, 2013).

17 Responses to Guest Post: The End of The Dark Knight Rises

  1. So what happens if Bruce Wayne shows up alive? It’s basically a “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” scenario. Alfred is going to get a reputation for crying wolf: it would be the second time that he declared Bruce Wayne dead only to have him show up again.

    In real life, Bruce Wayne would be facing charges for either importing fissionable material into Gotham City or fusing together lighter materials to produce fissionable material. (For example, he could have been importing Thorium-232, which is legal, but using Thorium-232 to make Uranium-233 without, at the very least, permission from local authorities would have been highly illegal.)

    • Not sure where you get that from; it was supposed to be an experimental fusion reactor, we’re never told anything about its fuel but the usual starting point would be deuterium, tritium, etc., or just possibly Helium 3, not radioactives. Wayne abandoned the project when he learned that it might be possible to convert it to a bomb, it was reactivated after Wayne was ousted from the company and kidnapped.

      • 1) It was stated in the movie that the bomb was “radioactive”.

        2) The reactor was designed to flood if it overheated. To me, that suggests a fission reaction. To achieve fusion you need to not only put in energy in the form of heat but also bring the reactants close together. If a fusion reactor is shut down then the reaction should just stop.

        3) It’s really hard to believe that Lucius Fox didn’t know that the reactor could be turned into a bomb. It’s true that there was, supposedly, only one physicist in the world who could pull it off but it would be, at the very least, negligent to design a reactor and not know it could be made into a bomb.

      • Brett Burton

        Wasn’t Wayne enterprises working as a defense contractor in the first movie? As such, I’m assuming, they are allowed to work with radioactive materials. The US government makes exceptions for certain corporate interests. For example, Cocal-Cola is the only company allowed to process the coca plant.

    • I don’t see how Alfred is going to get a rep for crying wolf. In the first movie when Bruce was declared dead it was the board of Wayne Enterprises that pushed for it, as far as we can tell Alfred was less than willing about the whole thing. If anything this would make Alfred more credible the second time around. If the guy that didn’t believe Bruce was dead first time starts saying “yeah I think this time he might be dead” then that would make it all the more compelling.

  2. Another interesting case of presumption of death occurs in seasons 3- 4 0f the TV series “True Blood,” in which the heroine disappears for a little over a year and returns home to find that her brother has sold her home, apparently assuming that she is dead despite a total lack of supporting evidence. It would be interesting to see what the Louisiana courts made of that one!

    • Hmm. I think they could have made a case for it. In the world of True Blood vampires are very much known to exist, and Sookie is known to have dated at least one vampire, which put her in quite a few life-threatening situations. Given the crazy supernatural weirdness that surrounds Sookie and everyone else in the town, I feel like if she disappeared for a year, they’d be fairly safe to assume that she finally got killed/eaten through some involvement with the vampires, or that something else got her.

      I’d be more interested in whether or not any of the vampires she associated with were investigated on charges of murder after she mysteriously disappeared.

  3. Unless I’m remembering the movie wrong, Bruce Wayne was last officially seen in Gotham at a soiree before Batman’s fight with Bane where he was defeated. After that, his last know location would then have been escaping a prison bane threw him into (assuming of course at least one person there knew who he was).

    The movie doesn’t specify whether or not Bruce used his own credentials to return to Gotham or not, but a likely scenario is he returned to Gotham using a false identity which would have left his last know location as somewhere in a desert.

    • Philo Pharynx

      If it was known that Bruce Wayne was in a hole in the desert, then why wouldn’t the US have performed a rescue mission? A helicopter full of special forces would have had him out incredibly quickly.

      As for returning, if you suspect that the bad guys know that you are Bruce Wayne, then returning as Bruce Wayne gives them warning you’re coming.

  4. If Bruce Wayne is eventually discovered living in Italy with Selena Kyle, could he then be on the hook for faking his own death? Yes, he’d have to be brought back to the US to face the legal consequences, but the way I understood the movie, Alfred figured out that Bruce was still alive (even before seeing him in the cafe) and presumably shared his inheritance/life insurance payout with Bruce so they would both have money to live on. Even if there wasn’t insurance fraud with the life insurance, Bruce still hasn’t paid taxes for the time that he was “dead”.

  5. I may have to review the movie (so I accept a mistake in the following) but is Bruce Wayne legally dead at the end of The Dark Knight? Sure, they have a memorial/funeral for him but I don’t remember seeing a legal document or definitive comment on this… perhaps I missed a little something here.

    • Yes, he is legally declared dead. Wayne Manor is left to the city to become an orphanage, and Wayne’s remaining estate is left to Alfred. Directions to the Batcave are left to Blake.

  6. If we’re going to talk legal stuff in the Dark Knight Rises, then please explain to me how Bruce Wayne has no legal recourse to regain his fortune when all of his stocks are illegally sold, in front of hundreds of very aware witnesses, by a terrorist who violently takes over the Gotham Stock Exchange. Something tells me that wouldn’t exactly go down legally quite as smoothly as it does in the movie.

  7. Chris Columbus

    Ummmmm Bane killed many people and took over the law…. You think the law will be up that quick? Comissioner ran things and had a private grave site for Bruce Wayne with only the people that knew him and knew that he was Batman…. Which was him, alfred, blake, and i think lucious (correct me if im wrong)

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