If I sneeze a really violent sneeze...

…around someone and startle them, causing them to have a fatal heart attack…

Would I be held liable?

Did you mean to kill them? Was there a motive?

Perhaps if they told you that a shock might kill them then you, feeling you were about to sneeze, crept up behind them deliberately with the intention of shocking them there might be an argument but I think even a half-decent lawyer would be able to cast a reasonable doubt in your favour.

Crimminally, or civilly liable?

No motive. I just (hypothetically) sneezed and a guy with a weak heart died because of it.

And even then I’d think if you had a decent lawyer you might be able to get it down to manslaughter since I’d think that you could argue that you really didn’t think a sneeze could kill someone. Of course, if the other person’s lawyer could prove the intent, it’d be different. Maybe you had previous knowledge of the victim having heart attacks due to similar sounds, you had a motive for harming this person, you had discussed your plans with other people etc…

In that case, I don’t see how you’d be any more responsible then a comedian making some laugh and causing them to choke on their food.

No, both tort and criminal liability arise from intent. With very few exceptions, even the most strict liability arises from some duty to behave in a certain way, and there is no general duty to “not sneeze around nervous people.”

Only if you intended (and thus knew) that your sneeze would kill him or her, or if your sneeze was part of a felonious act.

No motive? How can you be held responsible for a random act of sneezing? Unless someone can prove you knew that your sneeze would kill, and there was some reason why you wanted that person dead, I don’t see how you could be held responsible criminally or civilly.

This would fall under the “reasonable and prudent person” sort of language, wouldn’t it? A reasonable and prudent person would not expect a sneeze to cause cardiac arrest. A reasonable and prudent person *would *expect (for example) that shooting a live round into the air could cause someone to sustain a bullet wound, possibly mortal. Therefore, sneezing is okay, shooting live ammunition into the air is not.

In some jurisdictions, would the eggshell skull rule not apply? It holds that you are responsible for all the consequences of your actions, intentional or otherwise, including damage to a victim with an unusual vulnerability you were not aware of.

IANAL, but my understanding is that the “eggshell skull rule” says that, when you commit an act that would be a crime or tort even against a normal person, you are liable for all the harm that comes to that person, even if they are in fact abnormal and were harmed to an unusual degree because of some pre-existing vulnerability that you didn’t know about (brittle skull, weak heart, etc.)

If you did not commit a crime, the eggshell skull rule does not apply.
The eggshell skull rule does not turn something that would not ordinarily be a crime (sneezing on someone) into a crime. It merely says you are responsible for all the consequences of your criminal (or tortious) actions, however unintended or unforeseeable.

I.e. if you mug an apparently-healthy 30-year-old guy and he has a heart attack, you’re liable, no matter how much you complain that you didn’t expect a 30-year-old guy to have heart problems.

If you throw a surprise party for the same 30-year-old guy and he has a heart attack, you’re in the clear (probably).

Even then you have to be committing some kind of intentional bad act to be liable.

No you don’t. Negligence is not considered an intentional tort, but is still covered by the eggshell skull rule.

First of all, we were talking about homicide, not negligence.

If you want to talk about negligence you have to show a breach of a duty of care. I might be going out on a limb here, but I can’t imagine a situation in which sneezing involuntarily and startling someone into a heart attack would constitute a breach of a duty of care.

If the deceased was wearing a strong aftershave or perfume, they may have induced the sneeze, and therefore, their own demise.


What are you on about? The two are not mutually exclusive. “Homicide” just means the killing of a human being, be it lawful or unlawful, intentional or through negligence. Many jurisdictions even have a crime called “negligent homicide” or some variation thereof.

Negligent homicide is usually a crime, not a negligence action in tort. But, whatever, blame me for a poor choice of words. Do you have any objection to the rest of what I said?

In a criminal case, you win for lack of intent.

In a civil case, negligence involves duty, breach, and causation. Although causation might be there in this case, you have no recognized dutynot to sneeze around people. You also have not breached any duty, since you’re acting “reasonably” by simply sneezing.