Dastardly Dementor Dad Dupes Daughter

Tim Joyce, Editor-in-Chief, Volume 18

Between last week’s midterm exams and next week’s Halloween shenanigans, the Forum proudly presents some light-hearted and seasonally-appropriate issue spotting. In this week’s issue: Drone Dementors!

This story has been going around recently, of a Wisconsin man who pranked his daughter hard by retrofitting his unmanned aircraft (aka, a “drone”) with fishing line and some well-positioned strips of black cloth (video here). Apparently she’s a big fan of the Harry Potter books and films, and so we’re sure she recognized it immediately as a real-life incarnation of the soul-sucking guardians of the Wizard prison known as Dementors. Undoubtedly, the fact that it was hovering around her backyard elicited some kind of hilarious reaction. Twitter (*strong language alert*) is still guffawing, but we’re pretty sure not everyone would instantly have recognized this as a joke.

While it’s at least arguable that this flight complies with many/most of the FAA’s recently finalized drone regs, let’s take a moment to examine some more creative theories of potential liability behind this prankster parent’s aerial antics:

  1. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress. First, let’s admit that there are probably much more effective ways to punish your dad for scaring you than a lawsuit. But, for an exceedingly litigious daughter of average sensitivities, the argument could be made that dad should have known better. In other words, Cardozo’s proximate cause “foreseeability” analysis from Palsgraf rears its ugly complicated head once again! We’ll admit that the eggshell plaintiff argument might provide a decent defense for pops, but it sure seems risky to wait until after the claim to invoke it.
  1. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. See above, except now dad knows what he’s doing. To the extent that it’s sometimes harder to prove intent than negligence, a plaintiff might want to avoid this particular type of claim. On the other hand, an intentional actor is definitely a less sympathetic defendant, and particularly so if the jury is full of those darned Harry Potter-loving Millenials. Of course they’ll have time to serve jury duty, what with all that free time gained from “choosing to” live at home, and their generally lax work ethic.
  1. Copyright Infringement. Trademark infringement doesn’t apply when you’re not using the good in commerce. But Section 106 of the Copyright Act gives an exclusive right to control derivative works. This drone-decoration does look an awful lot like the movies, and it’s pretty clear that no one affirmatively granted permission to use the characters in real life. Given the rightsholders’ propensity to vigorously protect the brand / expression, dad would be wise to cool it on the backyard joyrides. On the other hand, he could probably make some kind of fair use argument, arguing something along the lines of “transformative use” — again, much simpler to avoid the issue altogether.
  1. Some crazy-attenuated products liability claim. You can imagine a situation where the drone clips the tree, or the puppet gets tangled in the branches, and then spirals out of control, injuring a bystander. Should the drone manufacturer then be liable? Extending the chain of causation out to the drone assembly factory seems a bit tenuous, but should strict liability apply nonetheless? Does this situation violate the FAA’s prohibition on “careless or reckless operations” or “carriage of hazardous materials?” Should that fact make a difference?

Everyone with half a brain seems to agree that this is just a really great one-time use scenario. But there are real issues to consider with this, as with any, new technology. Plaintiffs may have to get creative when arguing for liability, at least until courts take judicial notice of the power of a Patronus Charm. From those of us here at MJLST, have a fun and safe Halloween!