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Closing Arguments: Strict Liability, Dangerous Instrumentalities, Vicarious Liability and Use of the Lion Analogy

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It always helps to use an analogy to explain an obtuse or complex legal principle. Strict liability for the actions of others or for events where no real negligence or lack of care has occurred is a difficult concept to convey to a jury. Strict liability can arise in a product liability setting, from vicarious liability for an employee or agent or in connection with escape of ultra-dangerous substances or animals. In the Karen Silkwood Case involving the release of plutonium which fatally poisoned Karen Silkwood, Gerry Spence used the following analogy:

“We talked about strict liability at the outset, and you’ll hear the court tell you about “strict liability,” and it simply means “If the lion got away, the Defendant has to pay.” It’s that simple. That’s the law. It came out of the English common law. Some guy brought an old lion on his ground, and he put it in a cage — and lions are dangerous — and through no fault of his own, the lion got away. The lion went out, and he ate up some people — and they sued the man. And they said, “You know, pay, it’s your lion and he got away.” And the man said, “But I did everything in my power. I had a good cage, had a good lock on on the door. I had trained people watching the lion, and it isn’t my fault that he got away.” Why should you punish him? They said, “You have to pay because it was your lion — unless the person who was hurt let the lion out himself.” The question is, who has to prove how the lion got away? They have to prove that the Plaintiff let it out. If they can’t prove that by a preponderance of the evidence, they’ve lost. Why? Well, it’s obvious. It’s their lion, it’s that simple.”

Gerry Spence’s efforts resulted in a multi-million dollar verdict being returned in favor of Karen Silkwood’s Estate for her wrongful death from plutonium poisoning. Perhaps it will aid you in making your point on the issue of strict liability.

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