The Law Is A Ass #315: In God We Trust, Because We Can’t Trust Iron Man
Billionaires become billionaires because they use their superior business acumen to start an enterprise and build it up over time until it, and they, are worth a billion dollars. Or they inherit the billion-dollar business from their fathers and have no business acumen of their own.
Tony Stark is, apparently, the latter kind of billionaire. And over in the Amazing Spider-Man comic strip, he’s proving he has no business sense by committing acts so monumentally stupid that he’s opening himself up to dozens of lawsuits.
Last week I described the story they’re currently running in the Amazing Spider-Man comic strip – a story that’s been plodding along since back in December. For want of a better name I think they’re calling it “Iron Jonah,” but that’s only because King Features Syndicate wouldn’t let them call it by its proper name “Dumb and Dumbass.” Here’s what’s happened so far in this story.
J. Jonah Jameson, editor and publisher of The Daily Bugle and not so secret Spider-Man hater, wants to capture Spider-Man and unmask him. To accomplish this he went to Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist and the owner of Iron Man and all his armor, and gave Stark a sizable contribution to Stark’s favorite charity. JJJ then told Stark that he wanted to borrow some Iron Man armor for a charity gig.. Stark loaned JJJ his early yellow armor. Stark also instructed one of Stark Industries scientists, a man named Brody, to cooperate with JJJ in any way he asked. Stark then went on vacation.
JJJ had Brody equip the armor with a remote control device, so that JJJ could control the armor remotely. Brody did and JJJ sent the armor out as an Iron Drone to track down Spider-Man. A chase scene followed. The Iron Drone chased Spidey all over Manhattan, shooting at him with its repulsor rays. When the repulsors, which are particle beams released as concussive force, missed Spidey, which they did all the time because he dodged them, they hit other things. Buildings. Cars. The streets. The comic strip didn’t show us all of the damage the stray rays caused, but it showed us some of it. Enough to know that when the rays missed Spidey, they probably hit, and damaged, something else.
Eventually Spidey escaped the Iron Drone. JJJ concluded Spidey escaped because controlling the armor remotely was too imprecise. He had Brody refit the armor so that he could get into it and control it personally. Rather than refuse JJJ on the grounds that he lied to Tony Stark, was misusing the armor, and was causing property damage, Brody refitted the armor. When God was handing out backbones, Brody must have deferred to the earthworm.
As I write these words, JJJ is flying the Iron Jonah suit around Manhattan and chasing Spider-Man. He is, again, shooting repulsor rays at Spidey. Spidey is, again, dodging them. The rays and Jonah are, again, causing various amounts of property damage..
Last week I wrote about how JJJ is setting himself up for both prosecution on multiple counts of criminal mischief, which is what New York calls vandalism, and for multiple law suits for property damage. This week I’m going to explain how Tony Stark could be just as liable in civil suits for the property damage JJJ is causing.
Most jurisdictions – New York included – allow law suits for negligent entrustment. That’s when you negligently give another party a potentially dangerous instrumentality and said other party uses the instrumentality to cause damage to a third party. For example, if you loan your car to a known drunk driver who drives drunk and runs over a pedestrian, you and the drunk driver could be liable for the injuries caused. The drunk driver for driving drunk and you for negligently entrusting a drunk driver with your car.
Now if a car can be enough of a potentially dangerous instrumentality to support a lawsuit for negligent entrustment, and it can, just imagine what a suit of armor complete with repulsor rays would be. The people who owned the buildings and cars that JJJ damaged should be able to sue Tony Stark for negligent entrustment of his Iron Man armor. The city of New York, which owns the streets that JJJ is making look like a relief map of the moon, can also sue Stark for negligent entrustment.
I admit these plaintiffs are at a disadvantage. Unlike us, they haven’t read years of stories where JJJ sicced property-damaging Spider-Slayer robots on Spider-Man or actively participated in the creation of a super villain or two in order to get his revenge on Spider-Man. They don’t know what an obsessive blind spot JJJ has when it comes to Spider-Man. They lack this background information which would show that entrusting JJJ with something as dangerous as Iron Man armor and repulsor rays isn’t just negligent, it’s like giving a pyromaniac kerosene and a Bic to flick.
So is Tony Stark off the hook? Don’t count on it. On second thought, let’s count on it. “It” being the many ways the plaintiffs could still prove Stark’s negligence.
First, the more dangerous the instrumentality, the less negligence you generally have to show in the entrustment. Giving someone an A-bomb, or weaponized armor, is practically negligence per se. Moreover, JJJ said he needed the armor for a charity gig; hardly the sort of thing which requires working repulsor rays. Stark should have deactivated the repulsors, flight jets, and all the other weapons before loaning the armor to JJJ. His failure to do so? Negligent entrustment.
Second, the plaintiffs would get to take depositions of JJJ’s employees – like Peter Parker and Robbie Robertson. These would show that where Spider-Man’s concerned, JJJ’s as unbalanced as a scale with a missing weighing pan. So it would also indicate that maybe he wasn’t the sort of person to be trusted with armor so dangerous that Congress once tried to seize it.
Third, Tony Stark charged Brody with overseeing the armor and assisting JJJ in its use. Brody has been spectacularly inept as Stark’s appointed agent. Brody knows that JJJ lied to Stark about what he wanted the armor for. He knows that JJJ is misusing the armor by chasing Spider-Man and that he’s causing untold damage in the process. He should be smart enough to know that, were Tony Stark around, he wouldn’t approve of what JJJ was doing.
Despite this knowledge, however, Brody has ignored several chances to contact Stark, or someone else in charge of Stark Industries, and advise him about what JJJ was doing so that maybe they, if not him, could deactivate the armor. This failure on the part of Stark’s agent? Negligent entrustment. (Now don’t get ahead of me. We’ll get to Brody’s bigger failure in a moment.)
Fourth, even if Brody had no way of getting in touch with Stark, how is it Stark didn’t know what’s going on? Tony loaned out something as potentially dangerous as active Iron Man armor and didn’t even take the precaution of setting up a Google Alert on Iron Man? This simple act could have told him about what JJJ was doing with his armor so that he could come back to minimize the damage. Again, a negligent act on Stark’s part.
Finally fifth, and most compelling, even if Stark wasn’t negligent when he first loaned JJJ the armor, lawyers would look at the entirety of the situation. After JJJ used his armor to chase Spider-Man and cause damage the first time, what did Stark’s agent Brody do? Did he tell JJJ that Mr. Stark wouldn’t approve of your lying to him about what you wanted the armor for and wouldn’t approve of how you’re misusing it? No. Did he take the armor away from JJJ, when JJJ gave it to him to refit? No. Did he deactivate the armor when JJJ gave it to him to refit? No. Brody didn’t do one thing that any rational man would have done.
No, Brody, in his finite – very finite – wisdom used Stark labs to modify the armor so that JJJ could control it personally. Brody helped JJJ go out for a second round of blowing up buildings and shooting streets. This continued entrustment of the armor after proof that JJJ was misusing it would pretty much make proving Stark’s negligent entrustment what we in the legal profession call a slam dunk. (Don’t you just love it when I use all that legal jargon?)
As a result of the suits, each of the aggrieved property owners might be able to seize their own suits of Iron Man armor from Tony Stark as part of the damages award. And then…
Hey, let’s not. This story’s been going on long enough as it is.