Showing posts with label recklessness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label recklessness. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

No recklessness, no liability, court affirms in case of head injury during softball batting practice

mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Applying recklessness doctrine in a non-competitive context, the Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday affirmed non-liability for a collegiate softballer and Suffolk University in the case of a player hit in the head by a bat during practice.

Tort and Sport

Personal injury in sport offers fertile ground for exploring tort law, because athletic competition represents a suspension of the social contract.  Ordinarily, everyone in an orderly society knows not to push, tackle, or punch other people.  But in a sport, that can be exactly what you're supposed to do.  So a special, carefully designed standard of conduct, "the rules of the game," supersedes the usual web of unwritten norms, conveniently yielding a laboratory for socio-legal study.

If one fails to recognize the aberrant nature of the sport context, anomalous legal results pertain.  For example, every injury resulting from a collision of players on the football field is accidental, so a potential source of negligence liability.  Alternatively, many such injuries are batteries, because the defendant bore subjective intent to cause offensive contact.  At the same time, the defenses of assumption of risk and consent raise frame-of-reference problems in application.  An athlete generally assumes a risk of injury, a defendant argues, but not necessarily injury specifically in the way that it happened, the plaintiff counters.  The usual tort doctrines just don't work well to solve conflict over sporting injury.

To overcome this problem, courts in many states, including Massachusetts, have employed the tort standard of recklessness in sport cases.  Recklessness focuses on a defendant's indifference to a risk of high probability or magnitude (tests vary).  For its culpability analysis, recklessness hybridizes subjective and objective tests for culpability, thereby balancing the prohibitive prerequisite of defendant's intent with slim proof of carelessness.  The test is not a perfect tool for sporting-injury cases, but it works much better than intent and negligence rules to help courts patrol the outer boundaries of social-normative conduct in an exceptional situation.

j4p4n from openclipart.org
In Borella v. Renfro, in December 2019, the Massachusetts Appeals Court applied the recklessness standard to a case of ice-hockey injury, relying on precedent of the Supreme Judicial Court dating to 1989.  The court explained in Borella:

In a game where the players wear sharpened steel blades on their feet and are garbed in protective gear from head to toe, the playing field is a glossy ice rink, checking not only is allowed but a fundamental aspect of the way the game is played, and the object of the game is to put a puck into a goal (or to prevent the same), the plaintiff, seventeen year old Daniel J. Borella, was cut on the wrist by one of the blades worn by the defendant, Julion Scott Lever, in what Borella acknowledges was a "freak accident" occurring moments after Lever checked Borella hard from behind into the boards and took the puck away.

.... In this case, we apply [the recklessness] standard to the game of ice hockey[,] in which physical contact between players standing on two thin metal blades atop a sheet of ice is not simply an unavoidable by-product of vigorous play, but is a fundamental part of the way the game is played. We hold that where, as here, the record is devoid of evidence from which a jury rationally could conclude that the player's conduct is extreme misconduct outside the range of the ordinary activity inherent in the sport, there is no legal liability under the recklessness standard. For that reason, we affirm summary judgment in favor of Lever.

Dissenting, Justice Peter J. Rubin would have sent arguable questions of fact to the jury.  But he did not disagree, for jury instruction, that recklessness was the correct standard.

Batting Practice

Despite the efficacy of the recklessness standard in sport cases, things get tricky at the margins, especially when injury occurs off field, or outside the narrow context of competitive conflict between players in the course of the game.  The instant case presented such a challenge, as one player was hit in the head by a teammate accidentally, while the teammate was engaged in batting practice.

Should the recklessness analysis pertain to "friendly fire" in practice, too?  Yes, the Appeals Court answered, consistently with precedent in other states.  Recklessness is the appropriate standard for athletic practice.  

In the instant case, the unfortunate accident occurred between friends on the Suffolk University softball team.  The plaintiff-player walked too close to the swinging defendant-player at just the wrong time.  Their testimonies, and that of the supervising coach, might have supported findings for or against fault-based liability in negligence, but no matter.  The defendant's conduct did not rise to the recklessness standard, and the trial court correctly awarded summary judgment to the defense.

The court framed its choice of the recklessness standard as a problem in duty.  Duty in tort law is determined "by reference to existing social values and customs and appropriate social policy," the court quoted precedent.  This point is significant for reasons related to the deeper mechanics of tort law.  Without diving into the problem here, it will suffice to say that the interrelationship of duty and fault standards sometimes matters, especially when a change in the relevant law occurs, whether through common law evolution or legislative enactment.

Co-defendant Suffolk University also won summary judgment.  The players had signed waivers of university liability in negligence, and the evidence failed to support gross negligence or recklessness in the coach's and university's supervision of the softball practice.

Superior Court Decision

In affirming, the Appeals Court opinion described the Superior Court's application of recklessness doctrine as "thoughtful."  That appraisal prompted me to seek a copy of the trial court opinion.

Regrettably, Massachusetts is a jurisdiction that thrives on secrecy in trial court records.  The Superior Court for Suffolk County, which includes the metropolis of Boston, puts dockets online, and the interface looks like the same software used by my home bar jurisdiction of Washington, D.C.  But links to document images, which D.C. has offered for a few years, are not available from the Massachusetts system.  Given the state of technology in the courts and in the country, I can attribute this omission only to willful obscurity.

Graciously, attorney Robert B. Smith (LinkedIn, Twitter), Demoura|Smith LLP, who represented Suffolk University softball head coach Jaclyn Davis, shared with me a copy of the memorandum decision in the Superior Court.  The court wrote:

[Defendant-player] Ball argues that because Brandt's injury occurred while she and Brandt were participating in an athletic event, she may only be liable for conduct that was willful, wanton, or reckless. Ball contends that she is entitled to summary judgment because Brandt has no reasonable expectation of proving her conduct was willful, wanton, or reckless. The court agrees.

"Players, when they engage in sport, agree to undergo some physical contacts which could amount to assault and battery absent the players' consent." Gauvin v. Clark, 404 Mass. 450, 454 (1989). "The courts are wary of imposing wide tort liability on sports participants, lest the law chill the vigor of athletic competition." Id. Therefore, "a participant in an athletic event can be liable to another participant only when his or her actions amount to a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of the other participant." Gray v. Giroux, 49 Mass. App. Ct. 436, 438 (2000) [affirming summary judgment for defendant in golf-club-to-head case].

Brandt argues that the present case is distinguishable from those requiring a showing of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct because her injury was not caused by an opponent during a competition. However, the court declines to construe the broad language of the controlling cases in a manner that excludes Brandt's claim from their purview. Members of the same athletic team participating in a team practice are no less "participant[s] in an athletic event" than members of opposing teams during a game. [Cf.] Dugan v. Thayer Academy, [32 Mass. L. Rep. 657] (Mass. Super. Ct. 2015) (willful, wanton, or reckless standard did not apply where alleged negligence occurred before and after, but not during, athletic event [field hockey]). Accordingly, the willful, wanton, or reckless standard of care applies to Brandt's claim against Ball.

The appellate case is Brandt v. Davis, No. 19-P-1189 (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 2, 2020).  Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Wolohojian and Maldonado.  The case below was Brandt v. Davis, No. 2017-00641-B (Mass. Super. Ct. Suffolk County Apr. 16, 2019).  Presiding in the Superior Court was Justice Mark C. Gildea, an alumnus of Suffolk Law.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Let's 'open up our libel laws': I'm with Thomas

There's been a blustering rash of hand-wringing in journalism and First Amendment circles over the recent concurrence to cert. denial by Justice Thomas in McKee v. Bill Cosby (SCOTUSblog).  The case would have asked when a victim of sexual assault becomes a limited-purpose public figure after publicizing her allegation.  Based on First Amendment doctrine dating to the 1960s, famously including New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) (Oyez), a limited-purpose public figure must prove actual malice to prevail in a defamation claim.  That's very hard to do.  The First Circuit affirmed dismissal in favor of Cosby. 

"Actual malice"—ill named, as it does not have to do with anger or ill will, which is "common law malice"—is akin to the recklessness standard of tort law.  In a defamation context, "actual malice" is said to mean "knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard as to truth or falsity."  Supreme Court precedents late in the civil rights era amped up "reckless disregard" so much that for many years, actual malice seemed to be a nearly "fatal in fact" test.

Based only on casual observation, I posit that actual malice's rigor has been weakening in recent years.  Courts have begun to recognize the need to fine tune the balance between reputational and speech rights.  Meanwhile, "actual malice" has had a rough go in the world, even among our fellow human rights-loving western democracies.  Actual malice has been largely rejected as a functional standard for its insufficient protection of reputation as a human right countervailing the freedom of expression.  (My colleague Prof. Kyu Ho Youm paints a different picture.  I deeply admire Prof. Youm, a dear friend, and his work, which I have assigned students to read.  But I sharply disagree with his conclusion on this point.)

In his concurring opinion in McKee, Thomas challenged the constitutional imperative of the actual malice standard, which is so much higher than negligence and strict liability.  His argument was not so narrow, however.  Broadly, he proposed that the Court reconsider the fundamental premise that the the federal Constitution, through the First Amendment, should reshape state tort law, as the Court held it did in the civil rights-era cases.  Thomas is a champion of textualism and originalism, and it must be admitted that the Court's First Amendment doctrine from the latter-20th century is on thin ice in those schools of constitutional interpretation.

This blog, any blog, is far from an adequate venue to tackle this question.  I just want to do my part to raise consciousness of Thomas's proposition, and to dare to say, I agree.  For many years now, I have harbored a deep suspicion of Sullivan and progeny.  In my academic circles, especially in the free speech and civil liberties crowd, I have felt something like a church deacon harboring a dark secret.  No longer; I confess:

Actual malice swung the pendulum way too far in favor of defendants.  I get why, and I appreciate the good intentions.  Sullivan arose against the tragic reality of the Jim Crow South and the potential national crisis precipitated by desegregation.  But even Anthony Lewis, in his definitive book on Sullivan, Make No Law, recognized that the Court's federalization and constitutionalization of state defamation law had the ill effect of freezing the process of common law evolution.  As a result, we have been deprived of the opportunity to experiment with fair and equitable policy alternatives, such as media corrections as a remedy.

I'm not arguing to "open up our libel laws," quite as President Trump proposed.  But I'm with Justice Thomas.  Sullivan is not holy writ.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Revenge porn law can survive First Amendment scrutiny by requiring 'actual malice'


Last week a Tyler, Texas, appellate court struck the state’s criminal revenge porn law as fatally overbroad, so facially unconstitutional, under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.  The ruling garnered headlines heralding the unconstitutionality of revenge porn law, which could have big implications in privacy law and policy nationwide—even ramifications for U.S. foreign relations.

However, the court’s ruling was not so broad as headlines have suggested.  In fact, the court gave wise and constructive feedback on what a revenge porn law needs to look like to pass constitutional muster—which it can.  It seems in the end that the Texas law was just not well drafted.  Accordingly, the revenge porn laws that have proliferated in the United States, now in 38 states (collected at Cyber Civil Rights Initiative), should be scrutinized and, if necessary, corrected.  (Constitutional problems with Vermont and Arizona laws were mentioned just today by the U.K. Register, here.)

The Texas case, Ex parte Jones, No. 12-17-00346 (Tex. Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2018), involved a criminal information against Jones under Texas Penal Code section 21.16(b), which criminalizes the “unlawful disclosure of intimate visual materials.”  The statute reads:


A person commits an offense if:
  (1) without the effective consent of the depicted person, the person intentionally discloses visual material depicting another person with the person’s intimate parts exposed or engaged in sexual conduct;
  (2) the visual material was obtained by the person or created under circumstances in which the depicted person had a reasonable expectation that the visual material would remain private;
  (3) the disclosure of the visual material causes harm to the depicted person; and
  (4) the disclosure of the visual material reveals the identity of the depicted person in any manner[.]


The statute, section 21.16(a), furthermore defines “visual material” broadly (“any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide or any photographic reproduction that contains or incorporates in any manner any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide,” as well as electronic transmission) and “intimate parts” specifically (““the naked genitals, pubic area, anus, buttocks, or female nipple of a person”).

The court’s First Amendment analysis was sound.  The court applied de novo review to test the constitutionality of a criminal statute.  The court rejected a narrow construction that would confine the law to mere obscenity, as stringently defined by federal precedent.  Because the statute is then a content-based restriction of expressive content, the court charged the government with the burden of rebutting presumptive unconstitutionality.  The State conceded at oral argument that the law must survive strict scrutiny, i.e., advance a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to do so.  Intimate privacy passes muster on the first prong, but the statute facially fails narrow tailoring.  The court acknowledged that overbreadth doctrine is “strong medicine”; nevertheless, the statute could not measure up.

The court illustrated the statute’s fatal flaw with a hypothetical, unattributed so presumably original, that seems drawn from a law school or bar exam:


“Adam and Barbara are in a committed relationship. One evening, in their home, during a moment of passion, Adam asks Barbara if he can take a nude photograph of her. Barbara consents, but before Adam takes the picture, she tells him that he must not show the photograph to anyone else. Adam promises that he will never show the picture to another living soul, and takes a photograph of Barbara in front of a plain, white background with her breasts exposed.

“A few months pass, and Adam and Barbara break up after Adam discovers that Barbara has had an affair. A few weeks later, Adam rediscovers the topless photo he took of Barbara. Feeling angry and betrayed, Adam emails the photo without comment to several of his friends, including Charlie. Charlie never had met Barbara and, therefore, does not recognize her. But he likes the photograph and forwards the email without comment to some of his friends, one of whom, unbeknownst to Charlie, is Barbara’s coworker, Donna. Donna recognizes Barbara and shows the picture to Barbara’s supervisor, who terminates Barbara’s employment.”


“In this scenario,” the court observed, “Adam can be charged under Section 21.16(b), but so can Charlie and Donna.”

Therein lies the problem: not necessarily as applied to Adam, but as applied to Charlie and Donna, who are ignorant of the circumstances under which the photo came to be.  Certainly Charlie, who received the photo from Adam “without comment,” might as well believe that Adam ripped the photo of a stranger from a pornographic website.  However indecent the photo, both Charlie and Donna have a First Amendment right to communicate the photo “downstream.”  Yet without Barbara’s consent, Charlie and Donna run afoul of the revenge porn law.  Given the ease with which persons can share visual images in the age of electronic and online communication, the court found “alarming breadth” in this potential criminalization of expression.  In First Amendment overbreadth doctrine, a facially overbroad criminal law must be ruled unconstitutional even if it might be constitutional as applied to the defendant before the court.

The court distilled the law’s flaws in two dimensions related to culpability.  Typically of a criminal prohibition, the statute requires intent.  But intent pertains only to the republication of the image.  The statute does not require that the actor have “knowledge or reason to know the circumstances surrounding the material’s creation, under which the depicted person’s reasonable expectation of privacy arose.”  Second, the statute does not require “intent to harm the depicted person,” or even knowledge “of the depicted person’s identity.”  Borrowing the language of civil law (meaning common law tort), one would say that the statute requires volitional intent, but not intent to commit a wrong or to cause an injury.

The requisite intent to survive constitutional challenge may be likened to “actual malice,” which is used in both civil and criminal defamation law to describe “knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity.”  In the context of revenge porn, a constitutional law might require “actual knowledge of the depicted person’s reasonable and continuing expectation of privacy in the image, or reckless disregard of same.”  If Charlie knew the identity of Barbara, so might infer the circumstances under which the photo had been taken, then the State might at least allege recklessness.  Donna, who did know Barbara’s identity, might be charged.  But she should be entitled to defend upon a qualified privilege, borrowed again from common law defamation, to share information in the interest of a recipient or third party when the defendant should disclose according to general standards of decency.  A corrected statute would hold Adam accountable without a constitutional problem.

Also just last week, the Rhode Island legislature (my home state) passed a revenge porn bill (2018-H 7452A) that has the support of the Governor Gina Raimondo (AP).  Raimondo vetoed a revenge porn bill in 2016, objecting on free speech grounds (Providence Journal).  Her position now is bolstered by the Texas decision in Jones.  Beefing up the intent requirement is precisely one of the R.I. legislative fixes that brought the latest bill to fruition.  The Rhode Island bill requires that the defendant intentionally disseminated, published, or sold “[w]ith knowledge or with reckless disregard for the likelihood that the depicted person will suffer harm, or with the intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce the depicted person.”

I still have qualms about extending the “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) standard—which is drawn from Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as a bulwark against improper state action—being extended into the realm of private criminal or civil liability.  REP is potentially much broader than the intimate-depiction definitions of revenge porn laws.  And criminalization and civil liability are not the same.  Even though criminal defamation is constitutional when qualified by actual malice, contemporary human rights norms discourage the criminalization of expression at all.

At the same time, I have argued in favor of evolving U.S. law to recognize downstream control of private information, in consonance with both American values in the information age and emerging global legal norms.  Revenge porn laws—as against Adam, to the exclusion of Charlie and Donna—are a modest step in that direction, which European observers will welcome of us.  We will have to remain vigilant to continue to protect freedom of expression in tandem with expanding privacy rights, especially in a time in which the latter at the expense of the former is the fashion.  Conscientious actors such as the Jones panel (Worthen, C.J., and Hoyle and Neeley, JJ.) and Governor Raimondo are doing well, so far.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Mass. high court allows generic-drug consumer to sue Big Pharma for reckless labeling


Just more than a week ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued an adroit and important decision on drug manufacturer liability.  In a decision worthy of other states’ attention, the SJC allowed a common law recklessness claim for failure to warn, unobstructed by federal preemption.  The case is Rafferty v. Merck & Co., No. SJC-12347 (Mar. 16, 2018) (PDF), per Chief Justice Ralph Gants.

It was in the last season of Boston Legal in 2008 (s5e02) that Alan Shore (James Spader), maybe my favorite TV lawyer, took on Big Pharma, right on the heels of victory over Big Tobacco.  In real life, Big Pharma has long been about the business of avoiding tort liability.  When labeling defects have been alleged, the Big Pharma defense has found traction in federal preemption, owing to the FDA’s close supervision of labeling under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 301, et seq.

One thread of this debate involves the relative responsibilities of brand-name and generic manufacturers.  In 2011, in PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604, the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4, rejected liability for a generic drug maker accused of failure to warn of side effects when the label matched that of the brand-name equivalent.

In the SJC last week, the plaintiff also was injured taking a generic drug, but sought to hold the brand-name maker accountable in negligence and consumer protection, accusing the maker of failure to warn on the label that the generic provider copied.  The plaintiff took the generic drug finasteride, in lieu of defendant Merck’s brand-name drug Proscar, to treat an enlarged prostate.  The label warned of sexual dysfunction as a temporary side effect, but the plaintiff experienced persistent dysfunction.  The plaintiff alleged that Merck was aware of the risk from several studies and had changed the warning label accordingly in some foreign markets, including Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Significantly, then, the plaintiff admittedly complained against a defendant whose drug he did not take.  But the plaintiff traced causation to Merck, because FDA regulation of generic drugs compelled the generic maker to copy the Merck label, and PLIVA precluded liability for the generic maker.  The trial court dismissed, holding that brand-name-maker liability to a patient who did not take the maker’s drug also would “disturb the balance struck” by statute and regulation for the approval of generic drugs.

The SJC regarded the problem as one of duty.  Typically, the court explained, a manufacturer owes a duty of care only to consumers of the manufacturer’s own products.  The First Circuit upheld that logic in a 1983 case under Massachusetts law, Carrier v. Riddell, Inc., 721 F.2d 867.  The court, per then-Circuit Judge Stephen Breyer, denied recovery to a high school football player who blamed a helmet defect for his severe spinal injury.  He had not used the defendant-manufacturer’s helmet, but teammates had.  He alleged that had the defendant properly labeled its helmets, he would have been informed properly about his own.  The SJC further analogized the problem to the effort to hold responsible for a shooting an earlier-in-time actor accused of failing to secure the firearm.  The key to this duty analysis, the court explained, is the foreseeability of a plaintiff-victim—reminiscent of Judge Cardozo’s classic “orbit of duty” analysis in Palsgraf.

Duty in the drug liability problem, the SJC reasoned, is not the same as the product liability analysis in Carrier.  Rather, consistently with the federal regulatory scheme, Merck knows that generic manufacturers will be compelled to rely on its labeling.  Merck therefore has control over the generic label, and duty follows control.  One might say that the consumers of the generic drug are therefore foreseeable victims, for duty purposes, or that the chain of proximate causation runs intact through the intermediary generic maker, because the intermediary lacks control over the label.  Like Palsgraf itself, the case demonstrates the fluid interchangeability of duty and causation.

However, the court further reasoned, negligence, like strict liability, might be too low a liability threshold.  Shifting the liability of generic consumers on to brand-name makers adds to the cost of drug research and development in a way that might interfere with the legislative-regulatory scheme.  Under PLIVA, the brand-name maker could not share joint liability with the generic maker.  At the same time, allowing the brand-name maker wholly to escape liability would allow an injured plaintiff no recovery under any circumstances.  A balance may be struck, the court concluded, when the plaintiff can prove recklessness, or more, intent, on the part of the brand-name maker.

The court wrote: “We have nevertheless consistently recognized that there is a certain core duty—a certain irreducible minimum duty of care, owed to all persons—that as a matter of public policy cannot be abrogated: that is, the duty not to intentionally or recklessly cause harm to others.”  The court analogized to the duty of care owed by defendants in other exceptional areas of Massachusetts tort law: landowner to trespasser, defamation defendant to public figure, bailee to bailor, and athletes and coaches to competitors.

Otherwise put, the court maintained the essential balance of tort law upon its four fundamental elements, duty, breach, proximate cause, and injury.  The extension of liability to a defendant-manufacturer who did not actually make the injurious product depressed the thresholds for duty and causation.  To maintain balance, the requisite standard of breach is amplified to recklessness or intent.  Physical injury remains constant. 

Chief Justice Gants’s opinion in Rafferty is insightful and masterful.  It takes account of the greater endeavor of tort law to define civil wrongs, while balancing the corrective role of the judiciary with the policy-making role of the legislative and executive branches, and also striking a balance in federalism between tort accountability in the states and market regulation under the Commerce Clause.  At the same time, the decision recognizes how these balances are struck across the body of tort law in areas that usually seem only distantly related, from premises liability to reputational harm to sports.  This would be one for the casebooks, if casebooks were still a thing.