After Kramer gets Jerry the Commando 8 air conditioner, he just “installs” it into Jerry’s window without sealing the appliance in place. Later, the air conditioner falls out of the window and hits a dog on the sidewalk below. Does Kramer have any legal liability for the injuries that happened to the dog?
While Kramer might not have intended to harm the poor dog, that will likely not excuse him from civil liability. As we explored in one of our earliest posts, Tort theory allows for liability under a negligence standard. Applied here, if Kramer acted against what the reasonably prudent person would do under similar circumstances, known as the “standard of care,” then he could be find liable even though it was an accident.
There are 4 elements of negligent Tort theory: (1) duty, (2) breach, (3) causation, and (4) injury (with some sub-elements like standard of care and proximate cause folded into these larger elements). Let’s analyze each one by one.
Duty. A duty of care is owed only to a foreseeable plaintiff. Meaning, the person injured by the negligent act must have some kind of reasonable connection to the action itself. If there is too much distance between the two parties, there is not likely to be liability. For instance, had the air conditioner fallen to the ground, smashed into a million pieces, and a piece flew across the street and struck someone, that might be too tenuous for Kramer to be liable. But here, the air conditioner directly struck a dog that was passing by the apartment building. It is very likely that a jury would find the possibility of an air conditioner falling to the ground and it actually injuring a person or damaging property to be two sufficiently connected events to find this element satisfied.
Breach. Did Kramer breach some kind of standard of care, i.e. not follow the proper safety protocols here? This is a more fact finding question, but ultimately Kramer himself even admits that the air conditioner needed to be sealed but says that “he’ll do it later.” And, given the BTU power of the Commando, it is not unreasonable to have foreseen that the air conditioner would rattle and be dislodged from it’s precarious perch inside the window.
Causation. There can be some intricacies with regard to fulfilling this element, but it is quite clear here that the air conditioner falling out of the window was a direct cause of the dog’s injury.
Injury. As we see later in the episode, the poor dog was clearly injured by the falling air conditioner.
Therefore, all the elements of negligence are fulfilled, and Kramer would almost certainly be found liable under a negligence theory for the damages and injuries suffered by the dog.
A particular strand of negligence theory, Res Ipsa Loquitor, “RIL,” is also appropriate for analyzing Kramer’s action. RIL is a Latin term for “it speaks for itself.” It is an analysis used primarily when the specific legal elements for negligence can be difficult to pinpoint, but the defendant’s actions feel/appear negligent nonetheless. In this case, Kramer’s actions certainly are negligent. The essential question for determining liability under RIL is would this have happened without the actions of the defendant? And here, it is safe to say that the dog would not have been injured except for Kramer’s failure to seal up the commando 8 properly.
But what do you think? Was Kramer legally negligent in how he set up the air conditioner? And is Res Ipsa Loquitor an appropriate Tort theory to apply here?