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What to Do When Holidays Go Haywire

Jingle bells, jingle bells — it’s that time again. Eggnog, festivities, family gatherings, Santa Claus — but what if? What if, as Elmo and Patsy sang in 1979, Grandma gets run over by a reindeer? If she lived in Colorado, Santa could have a lawsuit on his hands.

There’s a Difference between Negligence and Rotten Luck  

If Santa — or the reindeer he was responsible for controlling — should run over Grandma, his liability for her injuries depends on his degree of negligence. Technically, if Rudolph got spooked by an unidentified flying object, Santa might not be held accountable if his team then made an unwieldy landing atop a family member. This might be considered an act of nature or, at the very least, an accident. And if it’s a bona fide accident, no one is generally to blame.

But what if Santa dropped the reins momentarily to dig into his sleigh stores for another energy drink? If Rudolph went dangerously off course while Santa was preoccupied, this might be vicarious negligence under Colorado law — he failed to responsibly control an animal that caused injury to another. If Santa was imbibing on spiked eggnog rather than an energy drink, this might be gross negligence — he displayed a willful disregard for the safety of others. He knew the eggnog would impair him but he sipped at it anyway.

But some accidents aren’t necessarily the result of negligence. Remember Clark Griswold taking out his neighbor’s stereo with a flying piece of rain gutter in 1989’s Christmas Vacation?

Clark probably wouldn’t be held liable under Colorado law for the damage he caused. He slipped on ice on his own roof while putting up Christmas lights. He wasn’t disregarding anyone’s safety but his own. His dismal luck contributed to the rest — he wisely attempted to slide along the roof gutter to get to a ladder, then all hell broke loose despite his best efforts and he inadvertently sent a gutter shaft projectile toward his neighbor’s property. It shattered a window, then the stereo. Was this the result of stars aligning against a loser? Certainly. Was it negligence, gross negligence or vicarious negligence? Probably not.

So what does this mean to Santa — and to you, if you find yourself in a Santa or Clark-like situation this holiday season? Before you can be successfully sued for negligence, the plaintiff has to prove three things: 1. you took an action that caused injury to another or failed to take an action that would have prevented it, 2. the injury or property damage ties directly to the action, and 3. the plaintiff suffered as a result so he’s entitled to damages.

Civil Litigation – How Much Do You Stand to Lose?

Damages come in two basic forms: compensatory (or economic) and punitive (or non-economic). Compensatory damages make the injured party whole again if the whole fiasco lost him money. In Clark Griswold’s case, if the neighbor had grounds for a lawsuit, compensatory damages would pay for the window and stereo replacements.

Punitive damages are intended as punishment and a deterrent. They’re usually reserved for cases that involve gross negligence. If Santa were hit with punitive damages, anyone reading news coverage of his ordeal might think, “Wow, I am never going to fly a sleigh guided by live reindeer while drinking spiked eggnog.” And Santa would probably think, “That’s the last time I’ll drink spiked eggnog when live reindeer are involved.” Clark Griswold would only be liable for punitive damages if, for example, he shared Santa’s passion for eggnog and if he drank a great deal before climbing up on that roof, then he did something that directly led to the accident.

If you find yourself in Santa’s shoes or Griswold’s position, here’s a little good news. Colorado law generally limits punitive damages to no more than the compensatory damages awarded. Now here’s the bad news. If the judge finds that Santa’s conduct was particularly egregious, he can step around this common rule and order three times the amount of compensatory damages. And interest can be added to compensatory damages beginning with the date the incident occurred.

Your Insurance Company Is Your Friend…Or Not

We’ll presume that your reindeer haven’t recently gotten out of control and run over Grandma. But maybe your holiday festivities got out of hand and caused damage to your neighbor’s property. If your home insurance includes liability coverage, you might be tempted to forego representation by an attorney and let the insurance company’s attorney deal with it. This is often a bad idea. Your liability coverage may only addresses harm that comes to others while they’re on your property. If, like Clark Griswold, you inadvertently sent a gutter shaft through your neighbor’s window, your insurer might balk at representing you in any resulting legal action.

If something goes awry for you this holiday season, don’t let civil litigation ruin the season. Contact Odle Law. We’ll make an honest assessment of your situation and tell you where you stand. And if you have more in common with Santa than with Clark Griswold, we’re here to help.

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