I AM THE BLAWG: OZZY & JUDAS PRIEST ON TRIAL
On October 26, 1984, John McCollum killed himself after having listened to Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman, and Speak of the Devil. While playing the latter, McCollum put a gun to his temple and killed himself. Two years later, his parents filed suit in California against Ozzy and his label, CBS Records. His parents claimed that Ozzy’s music, in particular the lyrics from “Suicide Solution” on Blizzard of Ozz, caused their son to commit suicide.
Judas Priest was involved in a similar trial in 1990. On December 23, 1985, James Vance and Raymond Belknap shot themselves after allegedly listening Judas Priest. While Belknap died instantly, Vance survived for three years before finally succumbing to his injuries. Their parents alleged that subliminal messages placed in “Better By You, Better Than Me” were responsible for their sons’ actions.
In both cases, families filed suit against the bands because their music had the effect of pushing their sons over the edge, resulting in the deaths of the three young men. The various causes of action brought in both cases were based on the notion that the music of both bands was negligently produced, and that the music encouraged the self-destructive behavior that resulted in the three suicides.
Over the years, many bands have been sued for various conduct on the premise that they should have known what they were doing. As I mentioned last week, negligence is a broad category of tort law that attempts to compensate victims for harms resulting from a lack of care that should be followed by other parties. Essentially, negligence allows victims to be compensated because the tortfeasor, or the party liable for damages, should have known better. That the tortfeasor did not intentionally cause the harm does not matter. Their conduct resulted in the harm of others, and that because of that conduct they should have to pay for the damages associated with that conduct.
So, what is negligence? Negligent activity is any action that falls below the standard of care to which a reasonable person would conform to prevent injury to others from foreseeable risks of harm. Within that rough definition are four elements to a claim of negligence.
The first element, and the issue central to both cases, is that there must be a duty to exercise a reasonable standard of care. As a member of society, you have a legally-imposed duty of care to act in a manner that prevents foreseeable harm to others. As a result of our federal system, every state will have its own set of case law that defines duty, one of which is foreseeability. Under the foreseeability test, the damages must have been reasonably foreseeable by the tortfeasor. Was it reasonably foreseeable to Ozzy and Judas Priest when they recorded their respective albums that someone would kill themselves as a result of listening to their music? If yes, then they should be liable for any damages. If not, then there is no liability.
Second, the tortfeasor’s actions must have breached the applicable standard of care. This involves comparing the tortfeasor’s actions to the standard of care that would be exercised by a reasonable person in the same situation. The tricky part of standard of care is that it will vary depending upon who you are and the situation. As an example, imagine you find a person who has been hit by a car. If you attempt to help them, what standard would apply? If you have no medical experience training, there will be a different standard of care than if you were a doctor who worked primarily in an emergency room. Similarly, a child will be held to the standard of care of a child in a similar situation, a person with physical disability will be held to the standard of care of a similarly disabled person, and so on.
Third, the conduct must be sufficiently related to the injury to be the proximate cause of the injury. Again thanks to the federal system, different states will have different definitions for the amounts of causation needed to establish liability. For example, if you start a fire in your yard, and the house next door burns down, should that be included in your damages? What if the second house down catches fire? What if an ember is caught in the wind and starts a fire two miles away? At what point should your liability be cut off because circumstances collided and produced an event that could not have been foreseen? The “but for” test is commonly used to determine causation, structured as “but for the actions of the tortfeasor, the harm would not have occurred.” For Ozzy’s trial, it would have been “but for the actions of Ozzy in producing and distributing his music, McCollum would not have shot himself.”
Fourth and finally, there must be an actual injury to the victim as a result of the conduct. Damages can include physical injuries, damages to property, economic damages, and lost wages. If the conduct merely threatens the victim, but does not cause any actual harm, then there cannot be a claim for negligence.
So, if the parents could have proven all four of these elements, they would have prevailed against the bands. Next week, I’ll explain the legal basis of how Ozzy & Judas Priest escaped liability.
Antonin Skullia, Esq. is licensed by the one of the many fine states of this great union as an attorney and counsellor-at-law. While he is a licensed attorney, nothing in this article should be construed as specific legal advice. It only constitutes commentary on legal issues, and is for educational and informational purposes only.
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