The Law Is A Ass #316: He’s A Cool Exec with a Brain Of Steel
To quote Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”
Seriously, I thought after two columns I had exhausted the exhausting “Iron Jonah” storyline which is still running in the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip. I mean, one week I wrote about how J. Jonah Jameson lied to Tony Stark and got his hands on an old suit of Iron Man armor, then used it to try to capture Spider-Man by chasing him all over Manhattan while shooting repulsor rays indiscriminately at buildings and streets. I wrote about how said acts could – and should – have resulted in JJJ being prosecuted criminally and sued civilly for the wanton property damage he caused.
Then, in the next column, I wrote about how the same people who sued JJJ for property damage could also sue Tony Stark – he of the much deeper pockets – for negligently entrusting the Iron Man armor to JJJ which JJJ used to cause the property damage. I even outlined five theories under which the plaintiffs in these suits could have proven their case of negligent entrustment against Tony Stark. The first was strict liability, wherein a person does something so inherently dangerous that the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove negligence or fault. (I wrote about strict liability, even if, like someone who was as big an idiot as Tony Stark was, I didn’t call it that by name.) So, because I didn’t call it by name, and because I love the sound of my own voice even when I’m not speaking but writing, let me expound briefly on strict liability.
One classic example of strict liability they taught us in law school is that of the owners of wild, or non-domesticated, animals. If a person has an exotic zoo or other such facility where he keeps wild animals such as lions or tigers or bears – oh my! – then that person would be strictly liable for any injuries the animals might cause if they escape. The owners don’t have to know that the animals are dangerous. The owners of a pet lion may think, for example, that their pet is domesticated. But when such animals escape, they frequently revert back to their wild animal roots and attack someone. So in the event that some wild animal escapes and injures another person at the local shopping maul, under strict liability the owners of the lion would be liable for the other person’s injuries, even if the owners thought the animal was domesticated and didn’t know about the animal’s being dangerous.
Another classic example of strict liability is storing large quantities of explosives in a warehouse in the middle of a large city. Because of the inherent danger of storing something so potentially hazardous in a large populated area, strict liability would apply, should something go wrong and the explosives explode. Strict liability would apply and make the warehouse owner liable even if the reason the explosives exploded was something unforeseeable, like a meteor crashing into the warehouse.
In the same way, giving someone who’s located in a densely populated area such as the middle of Manhattan a suit of weaponized armor – the functional equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction – would probably qualify as a strict liability tort, too. When that someone happens to be a known hot-head like JJJ, well that’s just the icing on the tort.
I thought that strict liability and the other four arguments I put forth – hey, I don’t have time to list them again, but they’re here for all of you to read – would be all the plaintiffs required to prove negligent entrustment against Tony Stark. Turns out I was wrong. The plaintiffs didn’t need any of my theories. All they really needed to prove their case against Tony Stark was Tony Stark himself. And that’s what – or should I say who – has dragged me back into the “Iron Jonah” storyline. Tony Stark and his incredible stupidity.
In the story, Iron Jonah’s pursuit of Spider-Man ended when JJJ flew into some power lines which overloaded the electrical systems in the armor. He lost control of the armor and was flying erratically through the city, at ever increasing speeds. Because the armor’s circuits had overloaded, no one could control it or stop JJJ’s wild flight. Spider-Man tried to stop JJJ with a webbing net, which didn’t work. It not only didn’t stop Iron Jonah, the ploy ended up dropping Spider-Man on Iron Jonah’s back, while the two sped through Manhattan. Straight for the stone arch in Washington Square Park. And they were moving so fast that when they hit the arch, the impact would kill them both.
Cue the “Dun, dun, dun!” music.
Then, at the last second, Tony Stark – decked out in his current Iron Man armor – suddenly flew into the scene just like the deus ex machina he literally was and saved the day. (Okay, that was an oversimplification of the actual story which compressed several of its elements by skipping them entirely. But trust me when I tell you this, you’re better off not knowing them.)
How did Tony Stark show up just in time to save the day when the last time we saw him, he was sunning himself on some remote tropical island beach? Well, let me put it in Tony’s exact words, “I loaned you that armor in exchange for your charity donation, Jameson … But I needed a back-up plan. I gave Mr. Robertson a phone that could always reach me.” JJJ’s outraged response was, “You gave Robbie a phone to reach you – if I got out of line?” to which Tony responded, “Offhand, I’d say that was one of my better ideas.” All of which means, as JJJ next observed, “But that means you [that is Tony] never really trusted me [that is JJJ].”
Remember how I said the plaintiffs in a negligent entrustment suit would have to prove that Tony Stark was actually negligent when he entrusted his fully weaponized suit of armor to Jonah? The exchanges I just quoted prove the plaintiffs’ case. Game. Set. And match. Seriously, I may not have been a civil attorney – may not have ever tried a single civil case in all my years as a lawyer – but even I, with all my vast lack of experience, could have won that case.
Q: Mr. Stark, you say you gave Robbie Robertson a special phone so that he could reach you at any time?”
Q: And you did that because you felt you couldn’t trust Mr. Jameson with a suit of your armor?
Q: You thought he’d abuse the fully weaponized armor and the repulsor rays it contained?
Q: And even though you didn’t trust Mr. Jameson not to abuse the armor, you gave him to him anyway?
Q: And you didn’t even disarm the repulsor rays in the suit of armor, before you gave it to a man you didn’t trust, did you?
Q: So you gave a man you didn’t trust a fully weaponized suit of armor – a weapon of mass destruction – for him to use however he liked in the middle of Manhattan?
This has got to be every tort attorney’s fondest dream: A damages lawsuit against a billionaire industrialist where the chief witness against the billionaire industrialist was the billionaire industrialist, himself.