Star Trek The Motion Picture opened with the excitement of three Klingon K’t’inga battle cruisers attacking an alien cloud. All three Klingon vessels were quickly destroyed by massive energy weapons that enveloped each ship one by one.
Many audiences probably thought, “This will be one EXCITING movie! I hope there are motorcycles too!” A few lawyers by the end of the film in 1979 could have thought, “Could the Klingons seek damages from the Federation for the loss of their vessels?”
V’Ger was originally launched as Voyager 6 from the United States. While the area known as the United States still exists in Star Trek, it is not stated if there is still a government of the United States. For the sake of argument, we will consider the Federation of Planets the successor in interest to the United States government.
V’Ger crossed Klingon space on its journey to learn all that is learnable and return that knowledge to its Creator on Earth. The Klingon’s attacked V’Ger for its intrusion into their space. While it is debatable that V’Ger simply flying through Klingon space was an act of aggression, the Klingon Empire does have a honorable self-defense argument for V’Ger’s intrusion into their territory.
Klingon attorneys could argue that the United States launching Voyager 6 to explore unknown space was the negligent conduct that resulted in the probe falling through a black hole. As a result of falling through the black hole, Voyager 6 encountered a machine planet that reprogramed the probe as V’Ger to complete its mission. The Klingons could further argue V’Ger’s original programing was defective, resulting in the probe destroying vessels it encountered on its return voyage to Earth.
Prior case law involving the loss of vessels at seas states that, “Negligent conduct on the navigable waters that causes loss to another constitutes a maritime tort.” Tidewater Marine v. Sanco Int’l, Inc. (E.D.La. 2000) 113 F.Supp.2d 987, citing United States v. M/V BIG SAM, 681 F.2d 432, 443 (5th Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 462 U.S. 1132, 103 S. Ct. 3112, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1367 (1983).
There must be legal causation under general maritime law for a party’s negligence to be actionable by a plaintiff. Tidewater, at *987, citing Donaghey v. Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., 974 F.2d 646, 648 (5th Cir. 1992). This requires that the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm. Id, citations omitted. Case law defines “substantial” as “more than but for the negligence, the harm would not have resulted.” Id, citations omitted.
Comparative negligence applies if there are more than two parties at fault. Tidewater, at *988. As the Klingons did attack V’Ger, comparative negligence will be applied in the analysis of whether the Federation is financially liable to the Klingon Empire.
No one at NASA in the late 1970s could have foreseen Voyager 6 encountering a planet of living machines after falling through a black hole. As such, the “superseding cause” doctrine will also be applied, which states that when a defendant’s negligence substantially contributes to the plaintiff’s injury, “but the injury was actually brought about by a later cause of independent origin that was not foreseeable.” Id. The doctrine can be summarized as, “the subsequent negligence of the third party must be so extraordinary that a reasonably prudent person could not have foreseen its occurrence.” Tidewater, at *999, citing Miss Janel, Inc. v. Elevating Boats, Inc., 725 F. Supp. 1553, 1569 (S.D. Ala. 1989).
The Klingon Empire would have a difficult time establishing liability for the Federation of Planets for the destruction caused by V’Ger. First, the act of launching Voyager 6 to lean all that is learnable and return that knowledge to Earth is not by itself negligent. The probe contained no weapons and was designed to explore space. Second, it was not foreseeable that Voyager 6 would encounter an alien machine planet that would reprogram the NASA probe to the point it gained consciousness on its mission. The encounter with the alien planet would be “so extraordinary that a reasonably prudent person could not have foreseen its occurrence.” Finally, the Klingons fired first on V’Ger. While the Klingons could argue V’Ger was in their sector of space, it was them who threatened V’Ger first, thus resulting in V’Ger defending itself against the attacking K’t’inga battle cruisers.