Legal Definition for Stupidity

Back in 2011, a family sued Walmart and the makers of a brand of gas can because (In 2010) their thirteen-year-old son poured gas onto a lit grill. The explosion badly burned the kid and a bystander had a heart attack and died trying to help.

               The parents contend that the gas can should have had a safety device that would of prevented the accident. Walmart is included in the lawsuit because that's where they bought the gas can.

               Even assuming that the kid had been twelve at the time of the accident, that's still old enough to know that you should not put gasoline onto a lit grill.

               My question is: Is there a legal definition for stupidity? 

               Note that I'm not talking about mental retardation. That's pretty easy to define and is linked to I.Q. or cognitive abilities. I'm talking about when a (relatively) normal person does something really, really stupid. If they sue, what kind of legal phraseology would the judge use for: "I'm dismissing the case because that person did something dumb."


              Remo Williams, 
              The Master of Sinanju.

IANA lawyer but both insanity and stupidity have usable definitions in law. I think what you are asking is a definition of the crime of fault (culpa) which may be cause by negligence, omission, lack of foresight, lack of skill, etc.

Apparently, this isn’t so obvious.

Charcoal fires are commonly started by squirting lighter-fluid (which is basically gasoline) onto the coals and then putting a match to them.

There is nothing uncommon at all (AFAIK) about people squirting additional lighter-fluid from the can onto the already-burning coals to “speed up” the fire. I’ve seen people do it often. I shudder every time.

When I was quite young, we had family friends from our congregation. The Mrs. of that family did that, and the fire went up the stream into the can and blew it up like a bomb. She got the entire left side of her body barbecued, and forever after had the scars to show for it.

ETA: That said, it’s still indescribably stupid. Yeah, lots of people are that stupid.

More ETA: My father was a BIG fan of making barbecues. From as far back as I can remember, he taught me to add additional lighter fluid by squirting some into a little cup and then toss the fluid from the cup onto the grill.

There is nothing unusual about suing a retailer for selling a defective product. Whether this particular gas can design exploded when it shouldn’t is something I cannot comment on. I can say that judges love to throw “frivolous” lawsuits out, they don’t usually settle for $160 million. They are fiercely defended and juries, like the good folks here, are skeptical of claims by stupid people claiming they we’re hurt.

There’s the reasonable person standard:

I eagerly await the OP’s second post, perhaps about doctors leaving town because they can’t afford insurance bad people suing because their cruise control didn’t drive the car safely while they napped.

The party …
had an accident
inadvertently caused the fire
was negligent

was involved in off-label use (perhaps - Is there a label on a gasoline can ? )
The other party

  • did not contribute to

Dunno about the US.

IANAL, only a law student.

Here in New South Wales, Australia the common law elements of negligence are that:

  1. A duty of care was owed
  2. The duty was breached
  3. In a way that caused damage
  4. And that damage was reasonably foreseeable, not far-fetched or fanciful, and a reasonable person in the place of the defendant would not have taken precautions to have mitigated the risk of damage.

(I’m not even gonna drag in the Civil Liabilites Act NSW 2002 because just…no.)

So in essence, in a round about way, there is. The manufacturer owes a duty of care not to create product that can hurt people if it’s misused, IF it is reasonably foreseeable and not far-fetched or fanciful that the product would be used that way. If a reasonable person could have foreseen the gas can could have been used in the way it was - even if it was misuse, if that misuse was something the defendant knew was common behaviour - then yes, they should have made the gas can so that it couldn’t be used that way.

On the other hand. in my jurisdiction (and shortcutting it down a lot), the defendant has a duty to take care. Therefore, if they knew what they were doing was misuse or dangerous, and a reasonable person in the place of the plaintiff would not have done what the plaintiff did, there may be proprotional liability or the defendant may be off the hook entirely.

So, if you do something so stupid it was either beyond the contemplation of the person who owes the duty of care (in the case, to manufacture a gas can that is safe to use and sell), or you do take steps to protect yourself and mitigate any risks that a reasonable person in your position would take (OMG FIRE LET’S POUR GAS ON IT!) then you lose. That may be a roundable way of defining stupidity.

Insofar as the seller of the goods is concerned, they may be protected already if there’s a warning label on the gas can (Don’t pour this in the fire). You’d basically have to prove the seller knew the buyer’s intentions and failed to warn, I’d think, before you could affix liability and even then, you fall back on the duty to take care of the buyer.

From this article, I gather that Wal-Mart was named in a total of 24 product liability lawsuits against the erstwhile manufacturers of Blitz brand gas cans (the now-defunct Blitz USA). The cases appear to have been settled en masse for about $161M, and Wal-Mart appears to have agreed to contribute $25M to the settlement pool.

OK, lighter fluid is closer to Kerosene than Gasoline, and that’s a huge difference…

But not a difference that’s obvious to everybody. As an essentially colorless liquid fuel, lighter fluid has a basic resemblance to gasoline. And I suspect any official warnings about the use of kerosene or lighter fluid are as alarming as those for gasoline, failing to make the distinction.

From the article:

Given that they settled, I’d say they disclaim that but have done a cost/benefit about actually fighting the case.

It is indeed. Gasoline has a flash point well below room temperature, while that for kerosene is comfortably above. That means a stream of liquid gasoline at room temp will form a combustible – indeed, possibly explosive – mixture of gasoline vapor and air near the stream, while kerosene generally will not. I suspect it’s ignition in the flammable vapor/air mixture that’s the problem, since the flame front will move much faster than it would if confined to the liquid/air interface, since the governing diffusion rates are of order 10,000 times higher in the gas than liquid phase.

You sound pretty proud of your father’s advice. But I don’t see any difference, except for the smaller amount of fuel that will burn as the fire travels from the grill to your hand. If he taught you to let go of the little cup, and throw the cup into the grill, that would be a marked improvement. But what’s the difference between throwing from the cup and squirting from the can?

The difference is that when you throw from the cup, even if fire travels up the stream of fluid, all it can do is reach your hand. If you are squirting from a can of lighter fluid, it can travel up the stream, reach the can (where there is more fuel) and potentially go boom. The cup is definitely safer, but…

The advice is still wrong because if you pre-soak the coals properly before lighting, you will not have to add lighter fluid to the coals. The trick is to soak the shit out of them and then wait a good long time (like half an hour) for the fluid to penetrate the charcoal. Then you can give it another little squirt, light it up, and rightfully assume your place as the Grill master.

When I was a teenager I was helping to clear a badly overgrown vicarage garden. We made a bonfire , but it went out because the stuff was damp. About half an hour later I suggested putting some petrol on it to get it started. I was not ‘totally’ stupid as the intention was to douse it with the petrol and then light it with a burning paper on the end of a stick.

In fact the fire still had a hot center and a few seconds after I threw the petrol on, it exploded, scattering the bonfire all over the garden. Luckily I escaped unhurt.

And the truth is, you didn’t even need to do this, and you don’t even need a chimney starter (although a chimney starter helps and is what I use most of the time.) I’ve made grill fires plenty of times using nothing but a pyramid stack of coals. All you need is some rolled up newspaper or tear off a couple pieces of the charcoal bag to get it started, and make sure there is adequate airflow so you don’t kill the fire. If you have a little cooking oil, even better, put a little of that on your paper “kindling” to help it get started.

Oh yeah, big thumbs up to chimney starters, but there’s just something fun about lighter fluid. Never tried doing it without fluid or a chimney starter though.

One of my brothers-in-law is legendar for using gasoline instead of lighter fluid back in the days of charcoal briquettes. No explosion, but the burgers all tasted like gasoline.

IANAL but… I’ll go with WW’s “Reasonable person” suggestion - a product should be safe enough that a reasonable person, acting reasonably, wold not injure themselves in the use of that product.

Of course, the extent of “reasonable” obliges someone to forsee actions by those less than reasonable- i.e. you must fence the dangerous dog, a sign is not enough since children who cannot read might end up trying to pet the doggy. The classic case is the kids on the roof of a school who fell through the painted skylight. The school could not rely on “they should not have been there” since there are times when there are people legitimately on the roof - the hazard should have been marked.

IMHO (IANAL again) the onus falls on the owner of gas can to supervise children around fires and gas cans. There is no reasonable way the manufacturer could forsee this.

It seems the lawyers (using the term loosely) latched onto the idea that a “flame arrestor” would have helped and the manufacturer should have put them on the can, and the store should have selected the cans with such safety measures. (I have 5 plastic gasoline cans and none are anything but plain cans. Google shows the device is a metal mesh across the base of the spout. My cans simply have a probably 3/16 inch grid inch plastic mesh. I’m a ticking gas bomb…)

I agree - the companies involved probably looked at the cost of a trial, the liklihood that a sympathetic jury might stick it to them regardless of the merit from the appeal of “a flame arrestor is such a simple devive, every can should have them”, and probably settled to get rid of the lawsuit(s).

Of course they could. It’s happened numerous times.

There are a number of things to take into account here. The first is distinguishing product liability suits from simple negligence. Manufacturers of defective products are strictly liable for injuries:

Product defects can be informational (insufficient warnings), manufacturing (the bits don’t fit together right or whatever), or design (the bits don’t work even when properly screwed together.)

In the Blitz gas can case, it was argued that the cans were defective because they failed to include a shutoff valve that would prevent backflow in case of ignition. The plaintiffs presented evidence of a valve design that would have cost very little to add to the designs. That’s one of the ways to prove that a product is defectively designed: putting forward evidence of an economically feasible alternative design that would have prevented the underlying injury.