(This guest post was written by Christopher Chan, who is currently studying for his Master of Laws at University College London. He is an aspiring barrister in London, England looking to practise in the areas of insolvency and restructuring.)
In the final act of Thor: the Dark World, our hero faces off against Malekith in a bid to save the world from total darkness. Predictably, the supervillain is no match for the God of Thunder, but the real victim of the clash is the University of Greenwich. The battle that ensued on the campus of this historical institution resulted in an astronomical amount of property damage. Since the event giving rise to damages occurred on English soil, the applicable law for a claim would be English tort law. This will be the first part of an analysis looking at whom the University of Greenwich (“the Claimant”) may sue under the tort of negligence for loss suffered. The second part will consider whether it may be more sensible to sue S.H.I.E.L.D. as the employer of our superhero.
A claim in negligence
When an ordinary citizen harms another, whether it is an injury to the body or damage to one’s property, a private claim can be made under the tort of negligence for compensation. To succeed in a claim of negligence, the Claimant will have to prove a number of elements to satisfy the Court.
The first element is the existence of a sufficient connection between the Claimant and the defendant. This is known in law as owing a duty of care, which is another way of saying one owes a responsibility to another person. In establishing this connection, the traditional principle the English Courts have used is the neighbour principle. This tells us that people must take reasonable care not to injure others who could foreseeably be affected by their action or inaction (Donoghue v Stevenson  UKHL 100).
But it is not enough that a duty was present, the defendant must have breached that duty as well. An objective standard is used in assessing whether the duty has been breached, which means that the Court will not consider particular character traits of the defendant. The defendant will be measured against the standard of the reasonable person who is undertaking the task or activity in the course of which the negligence is said to arise.
Next, it must be shown that the breach caused the loss suffered by the Claimant. In proving this element, the Claimant will have to show that but for the acts of the defendant, the injury suffered would not have occurred. It must also be demonstrated that where there is a chain of events that led to loss, nothing new occurred that would break that chain. This latter consideration is a test of legal causation.
Finally, after all of the above elements have been proven, the defendant may still escape liability if he/she can mount a sufficient defence. An example would be where the Claimant had voluntarily placed itself into a situation where harm might result; the Claimant is said to have voluntarily assumed the risk that resulted in the loss suffered.
Malekith – Causation in law
Let us assume that the ruler of the Dark Elves left an estate for the Claimants to claim against. A duty of care is presumed to arise because the two parties are close together, just like two drivers on a road. Establishing that this duty has been breached will be fairly simple given Malekith’s smashing entrance onto the university grounds. But for the defendant crashing his mother ship into the Old Royal Naval College, the property damage that resulted would not have occurred and so causation is also proved.
Can Malekith be said in law to have caused the entirety of the damages suffered by the Claimant, or just the loss resulting from the parking of his mother ship on George Square? Legal causation is a bit trickier to determine because although the entirety of the damage can be strictly said to have occurred because of Malekith’s conduct, some of the resulting loss may have been caused by a new event that interrupted the chain of causation. Indeed, it was the arrival of Thor and the ensuing battle that caused the majority of the damage. If the defendant can prove that the superhero’s appearance broke the chain, then the extent of his liability will be limited. We turn next to what the addition of the God of Thunder to the factual matrix means for the Claimant’s action.
Thor – Duty of care owed by public authorities
Our protagonist poses an interesting case given that he may be considered a rescuer, which means that his arrival would not break the chain of causation for the claim against Malekith. This is because the intervention of a rescuer is considered by the Courts to be a foreseeable, natural and probable result. Even if the rescuer were careless in his rescue, it’s unlikely that the Court would allow Malekith to use this as an excuse for the damage.
But what about claiming against Thor for the property damage? The role that our hero plays parallels situations involving the police, which is a public authority. In general, a public authority can owe a duty of care, but for policy reasons no such duty would be imposed (Smith v Chief Constable of Sussex Police  EWCA Civ 39). The UK Courts have maintained a consistently strong stance prohibiting the imposition of a duty on police on the basis that they should be given discretion in how to conduct their operations. This is a hot topic of contention in the UK, with cases being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on a number of occasions (Osman v The United Kingdom Case No 87/1997/871/1083).
The strength of the Claimant’s case against Thor will therefore hinge on whether the defendant is considered to have acted in a public or private capacity. If the former were to be assumed, then it would be unlikely for a negligence claim to succeed for policy reasons. However, if Thor were considered to have acted in a private capacity, the Courts will likely find him liable in negligence for the property damage caused, albeit leniency afforded to him for acting as a Good Samaritan rescuer.
Jane Foster / Erik Selvig / Darcy Lewis / Ian Boothby – Additional parties
It may be hard to raise a claim against the God of Thunder due to the difficulties involved in traveling to Asgard. Rather, it may be more sensible for the Claimant to sue the Asgardian Prince’s companions instead.
There should not be a problem for the Claimant in recovering from any of these four parties; none of the elements that need be proved show signs of any contentious points arising. However, there may be practical reasons why the Claimant would not wish to pursue a claim. For one, the public policy defence available to Thor may also be applicable to his companions. A more simple reason would be that any damages recovered from the defendants would be nominal, reflecting only a fraction of the substantial loss suffered. There are no indications in the Marvel films that would suggest that these particular defendants own a considerable amount of personal assets. The property damage they helped cause would have likely reached millions of pounds; it is improbable that even the combined assets of all four defendants would amount to a few hundred thousand pounds.
The chances for the University of Greenwich to win a lawsuit look grim. Malekith is certainly liable for at least a part of the property damage suffered by the Claimant, but suing him will be difficult. We’re not sure if the supervillain has left an estate for the Claimant to recover from, and then there are the practical difficulties of traveling to the realm of Svartalfheim to serve a claim form.
Travel difficulties are equally applicable to the situation with Thor. What’s more, the God of Thunder may escape liability entirely if the Courts accept that he was acting in a public capacity. Ms Foster, Mr Selvig, Ms Lewis and Mr Boothby can also rely upon this defence, but for financial reasons, the Claimant would unlikely want to sue them anyway.
However, all is not lost for the university; they may still be able to sue S.H.I.E.L.D. under the doctrine of vicarious liability. In the second part of my analysis, I will be looking at the strength of the Claimant’s case against Thor’s employer.