(This is an archived case summary)
James et al.v.Meow Media et al.,
2002 FED App. 0270P (6thCir.),
US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, No. 00-5922 (August 13, 2002)
On December 1, 1997, fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire in his high school and killed three classmates. The victims' parents suied several video game, movie production, and Internet content-provider companies, on the basis that Carneal regularly played violent video games, watched violent movies, and viewed Internet sites and that these activities desensitized Carneal to violence and caused him to kill the other students.
Carneal regularly played Doom, Quake, Castle Wolfenstein, Redneck Rampage, Mech Warrior, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy, and a possessed a video tape of "The Basketball Diaries".
The plaintiffs' case involved three causes of action, only two of which were at issue before the US Court of Appeal. First, the defendants were negligent because they knew or should have known that distributing their material to young people created an unreasonable risk of harm to others. Second, the video game cartridges and movie cassettes were "products" under Kentucky product liability law, and the violent features were product defects.
The lower court dismissed the plaintiffs' action on all grounds, and the plaintiffs appealed.
Negligence and Duty of Care
The Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court that the defendants were not under a duty to protect the victims from Carneal's actions. Under Kentucky law, every person is under a duty to exercise ordinary care to prevent foreseeable harm. Here, it was not foreseeable that the defendant's products would incite Carneal to murder. The Court of Appeal aptly described its reasoning as follows
"It appears simply impossible to predict that these games, movie, and internet sites (alone, or in what combinations) would incite a young person to violence. Carneal's reactions to the games and movies at issue here, assuming that his violent actions were such a reaction, was simply too idiosyncratic to expect the defendants to have anticipated it. We find that it is simply too far a leap from shooting characters on a video screen (an activity undertaken by millions) to shooting people in a classroom (an activity undertaken by a handful, at most) for Carneal's actions to have been reasonably foreseeable to the manufacturers of the media that Carneal played and viewed."
Even if the defendants had owed a duty of care to the victims, the Court found that Carneal's intentional violent actions were a superseding cause which broke the chain of causation.
The Court also engaged in an interesting First Amendment discussion concerning the plaintiffs' attempt to attach tort liability to the ideas and images communicated to Carneal by the defendants' products.
The Court rejected the plaintiffs' product liability claims as "deeply flawed". The plaintiffs failed to prove that the video games and movies were "products", as what was at issue was the ideas, words and images contained in those games and movies.
Summary by David Spratley.