originally published August 20, 2012
So I was watching Sharktopus, the exquisitely awful Sci-Fi Channel film, when I began to contemplate the legal ramifications of the story. Not so much what should happen to the evil science-guy who unleashes the shark-octopus hybrid into the world – I didn’t really care about that. But what if Sharktopus was a citizen? What, specifically, could he be charged with in each attack? Most importantly, how can I tie this film into the fact that today’s topic is on a piece of English law?
My example will come from the following scene:
In this scene, pirate radio personality Captain Jack, played with subtlety and biting intensity by Los Angeles radio personality and galaxy-renowned podcaster Ralph Garman, is hauled into the water by a Sharktopussian tentacle and presumably either devoured or left to digest in Sharktopus’s gut, Sarlacc-style.
What if Captain Jack had survived? What if he had been hauled off to a hospital, only to die because of some other cause? Would Sharktopus still be liable for Jack’s demise? Could this have led to a sequel?
The case of R v. Jordan, which came before English courts in late 1955, may provide an answer. It started in Hull, when three American Air Force members (neither their ranks nor jobs are listed here, so I’ll just assume they were pilots) got into a fight in a local pub. I believe the scene looked something like this:
One of the pilots – we’ll call him Maverick – stabbed a man named Beaumont. Another of the pilots – let’s call him Iceman – suggested that they run, but the third pilot (Goose) did the responsible thing and elected to deliver Beaumont to the nearest hospital. This is where things went wrong.
Maverick’s stab wound had pierced Beaumont’s intestine in two places. Those wounds were treated, after which the doctors prescribed a dose of terramycin (an antibiotic) in order to prevent infection. Beaumont happened to have one of those finicky bodies that doesn’t get along well with terramycin. The antibiotic caused Beaumont to experience an adverse reaction, which is a pleasant, clinical way to say that his body began to eliminate poop like a downward-facing, unpleasant smelling version of Old Faithful.
No problem, the doctors simply stopped the flow of terramycin. The next day, a different doctor was on duty. He felt that Beaumont needed some terramycin so that his wounds – which were now healing – wouldn’t get infected. Beaumont died.
The case went to court, and it was determined that, despite the fact that Maverick’s blade may have initially sent Beaumont to the hospital (“buzzing the tower” of Beaumont’s mortality, if I may be permitted to carry this just one step too far), the injuries he’d inflicted were on the mend, and he was not ultimately responsible for Beaumont’s demise.
Maverick celebrated with his friends in standard Air Force fashion – with an oily, shirtless, slightly homo-erotic game of beach volleyball.
Unfortunately for those stab-happy Yanks who hope to jet over to England and follow in Maverick’s footsteps, it isn’t always a matter of hoping the hospital messes up and takes the brunt of the blame. More often than not, that won’t happen. Allow me to call upon another example, that of R v. Cheshire, to demonstrate.
Let’s assume Captain Jack was dining at a British fish ‘n chips shop, which seems like a likely thing for a guy named Captain Jack to do. Sharktopus walks in, bumps Captain Jack’s chair with one of his flailing tentacles on his way up to the counter to order some chicken fingers.
A fight ensues, and Sharktopus shoots Captain Jack. Alright, he’d probably bite him or something, but I’m trying to make this case sync up with R v. Cheshire, so in this example, Sharktopus is packing heat.
Captain Jack is taken to the hospital where he undergoes surgery. He develops a breathing problem, and doctors insert a tracheotomy tube into his windpipe. This did not address the real cause of Jack’s breathing difficulties (which was probably demons), and as a result, Jack died.
Sharktopus’s lawyers would argue that, as per R v. Maverick, their client should not be held responsible for Jack’s death. England’s Court of Appeal disagreed.
In the 1991 ruling, the court stated that, unless the negligent hospital treatment was so wildly disconnected to the initial act of violence causing the victim’s death, the perpetrator should still be found guilty. Sharktopus’s actions needn’t be the sole cause of Captain Jack’s death; he could still be found guilty if his death was simply a contributing factor.
One more case piqued my interest today: R v. Constanza.
In this case, a man – we’ll call him George – was accused of assault against a woman – we’ll call her Mulva. George never laid a hand on Mulva. The legal question at stake here is, did he have to?
George followed Mulva around the city. He made silent, breathy telephone calls to her at all hours of the day. He wrote on her door. He mailed her over 800 letters over the course of four months, featuring eerie messages:
“These pretzels are making me thirsty, and so are you!”
“You can stuff your ‘I-won’t-date-you’s in a sack, mister!”
“The love of my life store called. They’re running out of you.”
…and so on. Finally, one letter that George delivered by hand led Mulva to believe that George had lost it, and was about to use force on her. She fell into a deep state of depression and anxiety. This, the prosecution argued, was sufficient to equate to actual bodily harm.
Or was it? George appealed the initial ruling, in which a jury found that his actions had caused legitimate bodily harm. He claimed that words alone can not constitute an assault. An actual physical action needed to have taken place. He then sat back in his seat and bit into a chunk of cheese as though it were an apple, smiling confidently at the judge.
The appeal didn’t fly. Words can sting, words can inspire fear, and words alone can cause anguish and anxiety which can manifest into measurable, tangible physical symptoms.
Keep that in mind next time you consider showering the object of your affection with thirty or forty country songs about how you’ll slip in through her window and force her to marry your dog (or whatever sick crap you’re into). And if you feel you must wipe her off the face of the planet in order to prevent anyone else from having her, don’t do it.
Get Sharktopus to do it for you.