Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wednesday's Weird But True Legal Cases - Vol XXVI

Tonight's weird (but true) legal case examines a scenario which could be written off as an exaggeration or Hollywood fabrication, but actually took place and was appealed and eventually decided by the highest court in New York State.

In Barker v. Kallash, 63 N.Y.2d 19, 468 N.E.2d 39, 479 N.Y.S.2d 201 (1984) the Court of Appeals examined a matter wherein a nearly fifteen year old child severely injured his hands when a pipe bomb that he was building (together with his fourteen and fifteen year old friends) exploded in his hands. Although some facts were in dispute, the court explained that

The plaintiff concededly obtained the pipe from his father's home workshop where he also found the caps to seal it and a power drill he used to make a hole for the fuse. Although his father also used gunpowder to reload shotgun shells at home, the plaintiff contends that the gunpowder used in the bomb was supplied by the Kallash brothers who extracted it from firecrackers. He testified, at an examination before trial, that they had told him that the day before the incident they had purchased fire crackers from the defendant Daniel Melucci, Jr., who was not quite nine years old at the time. Indeed, the plaintiff testified that he had told the Kallash brothers where the firecrackers could be purchased. The injury occurred after the pipe had been capped at one end and the plaintiff, and one of the Kallash brothers, had poured the gunpowder into it. As the plaintiff was screwing the second cap on to the pipe it exploded, severely injuring his hands.

Well, since the plaintiff must have been using bad fireworks in building the pipe bomb, he sued the eight year old who sold the fireworks (along with the child's parents) and the brothers (and their parents) who had helped him build the bomb.

Following depositions, the eight year old and his parents moved for summary judgment, mainly on the ground that the plaintiff was barred from recovery for injury sustained while he was engaged in wrongful conduct. The trial court granted the motion, stating that "by participating in the making of a pipe bomb [the plaintiff] was engaged in wrongful if not illegal conduct” and further noted that the courts of this State have consistently refused “to allow a party to establish a claim based on his own wrongful conduct.”

After the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court ruling, the Plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals. In affirming the dismissal, the Court explained:
when the plaintiff has engaged in activities prohibited, as opposed to merely regulated, by law, the courts will not entertain the suit if the plaintiff's conduct constituted a serious violation of the law and the injuries for which he seeks recovery were the direct result of that violation. In this latter instance recovery is denied, not because the plaintiff contributed to his injury, but because the public policy of this State generally denies judicial relief to those injured in the course of committing a serious criminal act.

As part of the decision, the Court made reference to one of those urban legend scenarios wherein the burglar who gets hurt breaking into a house, sues the owner of the property. The Court explained:
when the plaintiff's injury is a direct result of his knowing and intentional participation in a criminal act he cannot seek compensation for the loss, if the criminal act is judged to be so serious an offense as to warrant denial of recovery. Thus a burglar who breaks his leg while descending the cellar stairs, due to the failure of the owner to replace a missing step cannot recover compensation from his victims. As indicated the rule is grounded in public policy and holds that a claimant whose injuries are the direct result of his commission of what is judged to be serious criminal or illegal conduct is not entitled to recover. It involves preclusion of recovery at the very threshold of the plaintiff's application for judicial relief.
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