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Read Case 10.4 from Bagley, Chapter 10-8e (pages 273-274), James v. Meow Media, Inc., 300 F.3d 683 (6th Cir. 2002)
10-8e Unforeseeable Misuse of the Product
The manufacturer or seller of a product will not be held liable for injuries resulting from abnormal use of its product. For example, unforeseeable misuse of a product is a defense under Indiana law if it was the proximate cause of the harm and was not reasonably expected by the seller at the time the seller conveyed the product to another party. Unusual use that is reasonably foreseeable may be deemed a normal use, however. For example, operating a lawn mower with the grass bag removed was held to be a foreseeable use, and the manufacturer was liable to a bystander injured by an object that shot out of the unguarded mower.
As a general rule, a company is not liable for the criminal acts of third parties using its products unless the company knew or should have known that its negligence might allow the crime to occur. In the following case, the court considered whether a video game manufacturer was strictly liable for a teenager’s shooting spree.
A Case in Point: Summary
James v. Meow Media, Inc.
United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit 300 F.3d 683 (6th Cir. 2002).
FactsIn 1997, a teenager in Kentucky went on a shooting spree, killing a number of classmates at the high school he attended. The families of the victims brought a suit against Meow Media, Inc., which makes and sells video games. The families claimed that the defendant’s games had desensitized the shooter to violence, thereby leading to the tragedy.
Issue PresentedIs the creator of a video game, movie, or Internet site that contains violent images and themes liable under a theory of either negligence or strict product liability when children who view these images act violently?
Summary of OpinionThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit first addressed the negligence claim. To establish negligence, the plaintiffs needed to prove three separate elements:
(1)the defendant owed a duty of care to the victims,
(2)it breached that duty of care, and
(3)the breach was the proximate cause of the injury.
To find a duty of care, the plaintiffs had to show that the shooter’s actions were reasonably foreseeable by the defendant. After a lengthy discussion, the court concluded that the shooting was so aberrant as to be unforeseeable by the video game producer. Furthermore, “individuals are generally entitled to assume that third parties will not commit intentional criminal acts.” Here, the shooter’s intentional act of murder, regardless of the situation, made his act unforeseeable to the defendant. Since there was no duty of care, the defendant could not have breached a duty of care to the victims.
The court then considered whether the plaintiffs had proved proximate cause by establishing a direct connection between the action (in this case, the shooting) and the defendant’s conduct (distributing video games). The court reiterated that the shooter’s actions were intentional criminal acts and found, in keeping with a century of precedent, that a third party’s criminal act that causes all the harm generally functions as an intervening act, thereby breaking the chain of causation.
The court also addressed the defendant’s actions in light of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and expression. Like virtually all U.S. courts, the Sixth Circuit was “loath … to attach tort liability to the dissemination of ideas.”
Finally, the court characterized as “deeply flawed” the plaintiffs’ theory that the defendant’s video games, movies, and Internet transmissions were defective products. The court ruled that video game cartridges, movie cassettes, and Internet transmissions were not “sufficiently ‘tangible’ to constitute products in the sense of their communicative content.”
ResultThe plaintiffs had no valid negligence or product liability claim, so the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the suit.
Answer the following questions about this case
1) This case involved a lawsuit filed by the families of shooting victims after a high school shooting. The victims’ families sued Meow Media, Inc., which makes and sells video games, alleging that the defendant’s games had desensitized the shooter to violence. The first theory on which this claim rested was negligence, and the second theory was strict product liability. According to this court’s opinion, what elements must a plaintiff prove to prevail on a claim of negligence?
2) Regarding the negligence claim, why did the court find that the defendant (video game manufacturer) in this case did not owe the shooting victims a duty of care?
3) Regarding the negligence claim, why did the court find that the defendant in this case did not breach any duty of care to the shooting victims?
4) Regarding the negligence claim, why did the court find that the plaintiffs in this case could not prove the element of proximate cause?
5) In the end, the defendant video game manufacturer was not liable under the tort of negligence. Imagine the following, slightly different scenario. In this scenario, rather than providing a minor with a violent video game, a defendant, a 22-year fraternity brother, buys alcohol and supplies that alcohol to minors (underage drinkers) at a fraternity party. If one of those minors then drives drunk and injures a third person in a car accident, should the 22-year fraternity brother who purchased and supplied the alcohol be held liable for that third person’s injuries? Why or why not? What role might the concept of foreseeability play here?
6) Regarding the strict product liability claim, why did the court find this argument “deeply flawed?”