Aunt May’s Liability for Spider-Man’s Fight on the Staten Island Ferry

Aunts are awesome. Aunt May arguably is the most well known aunt in pop culture. However, Aunt May in Spider-Man Homecoming rightly would freak out if she knew the full extent of her nephew’s after school activities.

Aunt May is Peter Parker’s legal guardian. As such, could the passengers on the Staten Island Ferry sue Aunt May for Spider-Man’s fight that resulted in their cars going overboard after the ferry was cut in two [if Peter’s identify was known]?

New York enacted a Parental Liability Act in 1970 where parents and legal guardians would be liable for the “malicious and destructive acts of their children, between the ages of 10 and 18, who are in their custody and unemancipated at the time of the damage.” See, New York’s Parental Liability Act, General Obligations Law § 3-112.

There would be a question of fact whether Spider-Man’s fight with the Vulture was “malicious or destructive.” However, that issue is moot, because the New York Parental Liability Act was found to be Unconstitutional in 1988, because it was a bill of attainder that punished parents for the crimes of their children. Owens v. Ivey, 525 N.Y.S.2d 508, 138 Misc.2d 671 (N.Y. City Ct., 1988).

The New York Parental Liability Act effectively replaced the need for a trial. All a party had to do was prove intentional and malicious conduct done by a child; that they suffered damages because of the child’s conduct; and prove the parent (or legal guardian) was related to the child. Owens, at *514-515.

In the case of the ferry passengers, they could prove 1) Spider-Man intentionally fought with the Vulture, which interfered with an FBI sting operation; 2) the fight resulted in the cars being a total loss after going overboard; and 3) that Aunt May was the legal guardian of Peter Parker. This on its face would be liability for being Peter Parker’s guardian.

By way of comparison, it is a good thing Aunt May lives in Queens. Parental liability laws are legal in California, where the maximum limit for property damages is $25,000 under Cal Civ Code § 1714.1 (other states have lower limits). Given the number of cars that went overboard, Aunt May would have serious liability issues for each automobile, if May and Peter lived in California.

New York does have exceptions to the prohibition of cases for parental liability, such as for negligent supervision of a child with a known propensity for violent conduct, or to shield third parties from a child’s use of a dangerous instrument, especially if the parent has knowledge and can control the use of the dangerous instrumentality. See, McEntee v. Cappucci, 701 N.Y.S.2d 766 (N.Y. City Civ.Ct., 1999), citing Zuckberry v. Munzer, 277 A.D. 1061, 100 N.Y.S.2d 910, (2nd Dep’t 1950) and Nolechek v. Gesuale, 46 N.Y.2d 332, 338, 413 N.Y.S.2d 340, 385 N.E.2d 1268 (1978).

A plaintiff’s attorney in New York could argue that Peter Parker has a propensity for violent conduct, because of his vigilante activities. However, Aunt May has a strong defense because of her lack of knowledge about Peter’s activities as Spider-Man. However, the more interesting question is Tony Stark’s knowledge and enabling of Peter’s activities as Spider-Man with the “Stark Internship.” As the only deep pocket, it would make more sense for plaintiffs to sue Tony Stark, opposed to an aunt in Queens, as Stark arguably was acting in a Respondeat-Superior relationship with Peter Parker by providing Parker an enhanced suit to complement his augmented abilities.