The Flash and Property Rights

More mailbag questions today, this one inspired by this scene in The Flash Vol. 3, #2.  Charles asks:

Now, what the Flash does here is pretty freaking cool, but as you can see in my tags… what happens afterwards? Who owns that building? Do the tenants have to pay rent? Is there going to have to be a contract worked out between the landowners and the Flash? Even if it passes code, will it still be approved for someone to live in because the Flash, from all appearances, isn’t a certified home builder?

There are a lot of questions here, but let’s start at the beginning.

I. Who Owns the Building?  And What About Rent?

Regardless of the prior ownership situation, it’s clear that The Flash is offering the building as a gift.  Acceptance of that gift won’t require a contract (indeed gratuitous transfers are a classic example of a situation in which a contract does not exist).  Whether the owner will accept that gift is the real question.

If the owner of the prior building is the same as the owner of the land it sat on, then they’re unlikely to turn down a nice new building (assuming we can handwave any building code issues).  But if the landowner is not the same as the building owner, then the landowner might have welcomed the opportunity to terminate their agreement with the building owner, perhaps to consolidate lots, rezone the property, redevelop, or simply to sell or lease to someone else.  They might not be so keen on the new building.

It is also possible that the building and land were owned by the tenants themselves, which would probably simplify matters.

In any event, the tenants would almost certainly have to continue to pay rent.  They might not have to renegotiate their leases.  Apartment lease agreements commonly refer to a unit at an address, not to a specific building.  They also typically have clauses dealing with the destruction of the building, but from what I’ve seen of lease agreements it’s entirely possible that the tenants would have a right to continue to lease a unit in the new building (assuming the building owner accepted the gift, etc).

II. Building Code and Permit Issues

Now we start getting into the real problems.  In addition to The Flash (presumably) not being a licensed contractor, he certainly didn’t pull the required permits for rebuilding.  There may not be much legal leeway for the building to be approved without those licenses and permits.  And there are good reasons for this: we’re given to understand that The Flash did a good job of rebuilding, but what if he missed something?  It might not be so easy for the injured party to haul him into court.

And moreover, although the tenants ask “where are we going to live now?”, unless there’s a housing shortage the answer is “another apartment, since you can terminate the lease for the now non-existent one.”  To the extent that their property was destroyed, well, that’s what renter’s insurance is for.  Now, they may not have had insurance, and finding and moving into a new place is costly.  But it seems to me that The Flash could have more easily (and legally) used his powers to quickly make a bunch of money and then just given that to the tenants.  That might be more realistic, but it wouldn’t be very fun.

III. Conclusion

More questions remain: where did he get the building materials?  How did he pay for them?  If he could buy a building’s worth of materials, why not just give the tenants the money?  But the bottom line seems to be that even if he could convince the landowner to accept the gift of the building and the city to approve its construction, it probably wasn’t the best way to handle the situation.  It did make for an awesome comic book scene, though.

20 Responses to The Flash and Property Rights

  1. I will say, law aside, it had one practical advantage over any of the more sensible alternatives: they could literally walk back into the building and just settle in. The convenience of that to the tenants may be inconsequential compared to the lives they almost lost or the long-term legal troubles, but in the short-term – probably at least through a good night’s sleep – it was rather monumental. Admittedly, the implied existence of full furnishing and decoration might just be in my head.

    Though it would have become more believable if the Flash had made this a sort of M.O. I know he had trouble holding down sponsorships because he was a bit flakey due to constant heroing and the frankly demeaning ad spots he sometimes had to do. Why not take the tests to become certified (it wouldn’t take him long since he can super-speed study), and open Flash Home Building Services? He could charge a premium for buildings-while-you-wait, donate buildings to charitable causes (both for tax breaks for the company and for just plain being a hero), and have materials on hand to use for every rebuild job after superhero battles wreck an area.

    Heck, an insurance plan could finance his operations, too: You pay his company, and they take extensive notes of your property. He makes at least one personal tour for a few seconds of each new client. If anything happens to your building, the Flash will fit you into his busy schedule to repair it as it was before.

    Of course, there are legal concerns here, too, but it might clean up any over that one incident.

  2. This leads to a broader question: while heroes usually don’t capitalize on their powers and/or heroing activities (and the ones who do are almost universally written as rather sketchy) Why couldn’t the Flash or most other super-heroes do things for money (like, build buildings or clean up industrial sites or transfer large amounts of delicate materials or who knows that) and put the payments in a “requirements trust.” That way, when the Flash needs a million dollars worth of bricks, he can just leave a draft on the AR desk at the brickyard.

    Yes, yes, I know, taxes, employment law, etc. All excellent points. But at the end of the day, the Flash et al are supposed to be heroes, and heroes don’t steal things. It would be pretty easy to call out a scheme like the above, give little or no additional data, and have at least the major heroes have access to whatever they might need for their work.

    The first problem I had with this scene was that concrete and mortar take time to cure, paint takes time to dry, etc, etc. The building wouldn’t be habitable for days or weeks (and it has to be done in stages.) If you want to worry about building codes, I think the must-be-approved-in-progress part is the Flash’s biggest obstacle, not compliance to standard. :)

  3. Christopher L. Bennett

    I couldn’t make out the titles on those books, so maybe he wasn’t just researching building techniques, but relevant legal and code issues, finding who owned the building/land, finding loopholes that would let him do this, figuring out where to find unclaimed building supplies, etc.

    What bothers me more is where the replacement dollies came from. I know the Flash wouldn’t do this, but I can’t help imagining the other side of that scene being a couple of little girls bawling because a red blur stole their dollies.

    A more serious issue: The Flash’s action here could constitute obstruction of justice. If he built it on the same lot as the original fire site, which he seems to have done, then he would’ve destroyed evidence that the police, fire department, and/or insurance investigators would’ve needed to have in order to determine the cause of the fire. If it was arson, or the result of the landlord’s criminal negligence, there’s now no way to determine that and bring the culprit to justice. Granted, if this is the Barry Allen Flash, then he’s a forensic scientist for the police, so maybe he took photos and samples of everything and put any relevant evidence aside for safekeeping — but doesn’t that blow his secret identity?

    • It doesn’t blow his ID if we can hand-wave how the Flash knew to take such good forensic photos. He is a superhero, after all.

      • Melanie Koleini

        I think if the Flash collected the evidence, he would have to be available to testify in court for the evidence to be admissible.

      • No, any evidence tech should be able to testify. Typically, forensics issues are testified to by expert witnesses, not lay witnesses, because it’s not the evidence itself that is important, but rather, what it means that is important, so you need to qualify theevidence tech as an expert so they can give opinions.
        So, once you have produced the evidence in court, the evidence tech walks the jury through what it means. The defense can then cross-examine the evidence tech as to their interpretation(s) of what they’ve seen, and possible alternate theories and how likely they are. The defense could try to impeach the source (“you say this evidence was provided by a costumed individual claiming to be the Flash. Do you know if that person really is the Flash? Is the Flash known to have any expertise in in evidence collection? Do you often accept evidence that has come to you though, erm, “unusual” channels rather than being collected by the city’s investigators?” but it’s likely to be a waste of time, if the jury has a favorable opinion of the Flash. Especially if the evidence tech on the stand can’t locate any collection mistakes made by the Flash. (“It’s almost as if it were actually collected by one of us”))

        Of course, if the Flash made any mistakes in his hurry, it’s likely those would come out in discovery. But then the problem is that he made a mistake collecting evidence, not that he did it while being the Flash.

    • Even if he takes photos and samples, they wouldn’t have much value as evidence. Police evidence goes through a documented chain of custody to prove what was gathered when and verify that it hasn’t been changed or tampered with. Since the Flash is not affiliated with the police, they could question his training and methods, they could question his motives, they could challenge him to prove that these are collected from the site, etc.

      • I’m not familiar with the story in question, but I don’t think the evidentiary issues are as bad as you say. People who are not police handle evidence all the time.

        As an example, suppose you have a gun that was used in a crime which is found by a small child. The parents collect it and drop it off at the reception desk at the local police station. Now, this is not ideal in terms of collecting the evidence because of the likelihood of damaging or destroying trace evidence, but it doesn’t make the gun inadmissible because the defendant can’t question the child who found it.

        Or, alternatively, you have a stolen car dumped somewhere, and other people come along and vandalize and/or steal parts from it before the police find it. That doesn’t make whatever evidence can still be retrieved inadmissible.

        Whichever police tech receives the evidence (presumably, not Mr. Allen!) can then testify as an expect on whether or not the collection techniques used by the Flash are adequate or not, and that evidence tech can then be cross-examined on the stand about what inferences he or she is drawing from the evidence as presented in court.

      • Oh, it’s not inadmissible, but it invites questions on the evidence. It opens up the possibility that the Flash may have planted the evidence or removed other evidence. He could do this with super speed. The police reduce these questions by following standard procedures for documenting, collecting, and transferring evidence. The defense attorney can challenge every step, but they rarely do unless there’s something questionable. When the flash does it, you bet they’ll question it. Especially because he made it impossible for anybody else to examine the crime scene.

      • “it invites questions on the evidence. It opens up the possibility that the Flash may have planted the evidence or removed other evidence. He could do this with super speed.”

        The Flash does this merely by existing… he doesn’t even have to have been seen in the vicinity. Every evidence tech could be asked “how do you know this evidence wasn’t tampered with by the Flash?” and in every case where it is asked, the jury will weigh in what it knows about the Flash in weighing the credibility of the witness.

        “When the flash does it, you bet they’ll question it.”
        Only if A) they’re stupid, or B) there’s something questionable about the evidence processing. Challenging the Flash’s motives won’t be very effective if the public (specifically, that part of the public which are currently the jury members) has a reason to mistrust the Flash. Setting it up as “who do you believe, the guy on trial or the member of the Justice League” is not the path to acquittal.

        “Especially because he made it impossible for anybody else to examine the crime scene.”
        You DO know that police agencies routinely exclude everyone else from crime scenes, right?

        Heck, if the local PD has a reputation for being corrupt (say, like the Gotham City PD in early Batman), having the Flash collect the evidence might make it MORE LIKELY to be taken on its face by the jury.

      • What about the lawyer that doesn’t question the Flash’s integrity, but questions his competence? The Flash is untrained (to the public’s eyes), and definitely impulsive. Sure the Flash is better than corrupt cops, mostly because the only thing lower than a corrupt cop is a child molester. But the question is – how does the Flash compare to a competent police force? How do they answer “Couldn’t the Flash wait for an hour to let the Police do their job? Why was it so important to get it done right at that moment? Everybody, even superhumans, can make mistakes.”

      • “What about the lawyer that doesn’t question the Flash’s integrity, but questions his competence?”
        I already addressed that point. You can ask whatever evidence tech is testifying about the evidence about the competence of its collection, sure, but the evidence guy’s going to say “it was collected competently, all right… in fact, it might as well have been one of us!” and that line of questioning closes.
        On the other hand, if the Flash DOES collect the evidence in such a way as it’s degraded and unusable (he IS in a bit of hurry, after all) then the problem is that he’s been sloppy collecting the evidence, not that he was the Flash when he was collecting it. Any evidence tech can be sloppy for whatever reason, but this is something the defense can only exploit if either A) there’s something about this particular evidence that calls it into question, or B) the jury is predisposed to doubt the evidence lab, evidence collectors, police, or prosecution.

        If the best defense the defense can muster is “maybe the Flash botched collecting all that evidence that points to the defendant’s being a criminal”, then that’s not going to trial… the defense will take a plea.

    • As far as the dolly goes, I always figured that that WAS her dolly. He just searched the disaster zone until he found it (or two of them).

      That or, you know, he bought it- took the doll and left some money.

  4. When Supes rebuilds a building, he can weld the steel framing with his heat vision. How did the Flash do it? Certainly not with conventional welding gear! It he moved a torch that fast it would blow out, while arc-welding has a limit to how fast you can go, and going too fast gives you a defective weld. So, maybe he rubs two steel bars together real fast so the friction makes it hot enough to flow? Even if it works, I bet that’s a non-approved building method, right there.

    • Actually, I’m given to understand by my structural engineer brother than friction-welding is a real thing.

      I also believe there’s a superdickery.com entry involving Superman welding metal together in that fashion. It’s mocking it because, well, “it’s a shame he doesn’t have an easier way, like heating it up by looking at it. They could call it ‘heat vision’ or something.”

      But for the Flash, that seems well within comic-book logic, and not outside of real-world potential applications for such superpowers.

      • A few moments with Wikipedia shows that friction welding isn’t really welding. I would guess that the regulations for what constitutes acceptable welding techniques include only the types of welding done by ordinary welders, and thus “I superheated the metal by rubbing the pieces together really fast until they heated up enough” might actually work perfectly well in the Flash’s case, but still not be according to code.

        Note another difference between the Flash’s case and Supes’ case… Supes can non-destructively inspect the weld for correctness using his x-ray vision, while the Flash is stuck with more traditional methods.

      • Friction welding isn’t welding only because you’re not literally melting the two bits of metal where they join. Technically it’s forging. It’s just as strong, though, and close enough to being the same thing. This is meant as a reply to the reply to the post that this one is responding to. :p

  5. Pingback: Speed Reading « Speed Force

  6. Yeah, I’d probably wait a few minutes before walking inside the Flash-built building. That concrete might need a few more minutes to dry….

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