NEGLIGENCE AND GAMES
January 1, 1990 by David Spratley
(This is an archived case summary)
A mother brought a wrongful death action against TSR, the manufacturer of the pen-and-paper roleplaying game “Dungeons& Dragons”, for the suicide of her son. The United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, 715 F. Supp. 819, granted summary judgment to TSR, effectively dismissing the case on constitutional grounds. The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision, but on non-constitutional grounds. The Court of Appeal ruled that under Kentucky's common law principles of negligence, TSR was not liable for the boy's death, and held that (1) TSR was not negligent in disseminating the game to “mentally fragile persons”; (2) TSR had not breached a duty to warn; and (3) the son's suicide was an ”intervening cause” of his death.
The plaintiff alleged that her late son was an avid ”Dungeons and Dragons” player, and that it came to dominate his mind to such an extent that he was driven to suicide. She asserted that TSR violated a duty of care in publishing and distributing the game materials; that TSR violated a duty to warn that the game could cause psychological harm in fragile-minded children; and that the boy's death, which was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, was a direct and proximate result of TSR's alleged wrongdoing.
Actionable negligence, under Kentucky law, consists of a duty of care, violation of that duty and a consequent injury. Every person owes duty to every other person to exercise ordinary care in his or her activities to prevent any foreseeable injury. It is also a fundamental principle of negligence that there is no liability without fault. Liability without fault, or “strict liability,” may sometimes attach where an injury is caused by an inherently dangerous product. The Court of Appeal held that the doctrine of strict liability has never been extended to words or pictures.
The Court found that TSR was not liable for the suicide of a player under the theory that TSR had negligently disseminated the game to “mentally fragile persons”. The only practicable way of ensuring that the game could never reach “mentally fragile” individuals would be to refrain from selling it at all, and as the Court stated, “we are confident that the courts of Kentucky would never permit a jury to say that simply by marketing a parlour game, the defendant violated its duty to exercise ordinary care.”
Finally, the Court found that the teenager's suicide was an “intervening cause” of his death, thereby relieving TSR from any liability. Generally, suicide is considered an independent intervening act which a party cannot be expected to foresee. There are exceptions to this rule. Where a person known to be suicidal is placed in the direct care of a custodian, for example, and the custodian negligently fails to take appropriate measures to guard against the person's killing himself, the suicide may be found to have been a direct and proximate consequence of the custodian's breach of duty. In this case, however, the teenager was not known to be suicidal, was not placed in TSR's care or custody, and there was no evidence that the teenager would not have committed suicide if he had not played “Dungeons and Dragons”.
Watters v. TSR, Inc.