Thursday, 7 June 2007

Issue 13 - Coffee

Issue 13 - 10 July, 2005

Here's a good one - the transit authority have managed to persuade the city to pass a law which makes it illegal to have a cup of coffee on the subway. You don't even have to drink from it, simple possession is illegal, thereby moving coffee into the same category as class A drugs and concealed firearms. When asked what their problem was, a spokesperson for the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) said that coffee is dangerous, because you can spill it on others, and then the spillee could sue the MTA.

Well MTA - let's work through this. (I wanted to say, "I have a news flash for you", but I can't make my point in less than 15 seconds like all news stories here, given the limited attention span of the average news watcher who obviously prefers chewing gum to food with nutritional value. Not sure I can give it a sensationalist headline either, but give me a minute).

Negligence 101: The law of Tort (which the locals love to sue for so much) requires; (1) a victim to whom you owe a duty of care (duty of care); (2) actual damage to that victim (damage); (3) a reasonably foreseeable event which would give rise to that damage (reasonably foreseeable); and (4) recklessness as to whether damage follows the event or not (fault).

Don't be scared off by the legalese - I prefer to call it the "idiot" test.

So, follow my logic:

1. If someone spills coffee on you in the subway, they are an idiot. In legalese: they need to be nice to other subway users (duty of care); the train jerks all the time so don't be surprised by it (reasonably foreseeable); and if you don't hold on or put the lid on tight you are an idiot (fault). If you can demonstrate damage, then you can sue the idiot.

2. What you can't do is sue the MTA. They need to be nice to subway users (duty of care), they can foresee that people will spill things (reasonably foreseeable), but it's not their fault that people are idiots because in reality the idiots are at fault (so, no fault). No court would ever hold the MTA responsible for all the foolish things that people do on the subway (otherwise they could be sued for all the crazy people - and the fares would be a thousand dollars a trip just to pay their legal insurance). The MTA are not the idiots here, so you can't sue them.

3. BUT, what if it is their responsibility to enforce the law? This means that now it is illegal, they have to check for coffee before someone brings it on to the subway. And if they don't, and one slips through? Well, are they at fault? I'll bet there is a lawyer somewhere who would love to test out in court whether they are. So there you have it - all of requirement met: duty of care, reasonable foreseeability, and now fault. Good thinking - the MTA are now the idiots because they've just created the risk they were passing the law to avoid.

I have a much harder question though - what does this mean for American legislation now? Do city, state and federal assemblies need to pass laws to make simple stupidity a criminal act? That's a pretty high standard - there are a lot of idiots in the world - are they all going to be criminals by definition in America? To all idiots now have to be arrested and tried through the legal system? Are the police now responsible for catching all stupid people and locking them up until their trial? Given I think that the idiots who passed this law are stupid, should they be the first to be locked up?

I really would love to do my state bar exam and be a laywer in this city. I could be sooooooooo irritating!

Legally a very scary place this.

[Time for the inevitable dislaimer: real lawyers - please correct me offline, I did my law degree more than ten years ago. Potential plaintiffs - does this look like legal advice? (let me me help you answer this one - NO!) I owe you no duty of care here, so I don't need to be careful about whether I am right or not. Find an idiot.]

I thought up my sensationalist headline though:

"Congress arrests its own idiots."

Bet they'll buy that if you put it on the front page of the New York Post.


This week's blog was brought to you by the letter H for HOT - 32 degrees today (95 in old money), and the number zero, being the number of people in other teams who came in today on a Sunday to work in the office. Sadly we had very close to a full house in my group, on the day with the best weather of the summer as well - the better days are coming guys, I promise.


I wrote this tonight on the roof of my building. It's a very civilised place when the sun is setting (but suitable only for desert-raised frilly-necked lizards during the day). A photos for you of the Woolworth Building in the sunset:

Did you miss the blog about our trip to St Paul, Minnesota? Have a look here.