MythBusted or Ultrahazardous Activity? Popular Show Sends Cannonball Through California Home

The Discovery Channel’s popular show “Mythbusters” has educated many on the realities and science of common myths. I personally enjoy watching the show with my kids. Now, however, I can show it as part of my torts class. This week, the show was doing an episode and sent a wayward cannonball through a house in Dublin, California (near Oakland) and into the window of a van parked outside.

According to police, “the cannonball took a few unfortunate bounces” and “careened off the hill at a very bad trajectory and carried into this neighborhood.”

The property damage is an obvious liability, but they are fortunate no one was hurt. We discuss the range of activities considered to be ultrahazardous or abnormally dangerous in common law. While our system placed an emphasis on negligence as the primary system of liability, we have always recognized the use of strict liability in some areas like animal liability and ultrahazardous activities — and later product liability. The Second Restatement describes the factors for ultrahazardous or abnormally dangerous activities:

the Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 520:

“In determining whether an activity is abnormally dangerous, the following factors are to be considered: (a) existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person, land, or chattels of others; (b) likelihood that the harm that results from it will be great; (c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care; (d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of common usage; (e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and (f) extent to which its value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes.”

By any definition, launching cannonballs is an ultrahazardous or abnormally dangerous activity. A video shows the cannonball hole in the house – confirming that the wisdom of ultrahazardous liability is no myth.

Source: Washington Post

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20 thoughts on “MythBusted or Ultrahazardous Activity? Popular Show Sends Cannonball Through California Home

  1. Name the cannonball Bolton … “the cannonball took a few unfortunate bounces” and “careened off the hill at a very bad trajectory and carried into this neighborhood.”

  2. It does make me wonder why someone would want to buy a house within yards of something called “The Alameda Bomb Range”.

    I worked for a bomb maker in Minnesota and we had a test range out in the sticks. Farmers from miles away would call & bitch when we dropped a 155 and they are not really all that loud.

    I hope they cover they event on the show, they should try to maintain a sense of humor since nobody was hurt and it sure reinforces the “don’t try this at home” theme.

  3. Not convinced it was an ultra-hazardous activity when you take in to account the factors:

    (a) existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person, land, or chattels of others;

    Location – firing range – reasonable assumption risk is low.

    (b) likelihood that the harm that results from it will be great;

    Thanks to mitigation and risk assessment risk of harm would have been low. They likely overlooked the possibility of cannon balls bouncing.

    (c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care;

    Reasonable care was taken the actually probability of the cannon ball doing what it did would have been considered quite small, prior to actual experimentation, if indeed it was considered at all.

    (d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of common usage;

    Firing range – well firing a cannon depending on definition of cannon and is perhaps a rare activity even there. The difference is in the projectile. Modern shells tend to be designed not to bounce. With hind sight their is a risk of cannon balls bouncing, who’d have thought it?

    (e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and

    Up until the event a reasonable person would consider a firing range an appropriate place for the event.

    (f) extent to which its value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes.”

    This (s/w)ould have been taken in to account at time of planning for firing range and or housing.

    Sure they will be liable for damage and inconvenience but as to punitive penalties, I wouldn’t think so.

    It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

  4. I would imagine the legal issues in this are going to be purely academic. I can’t imagine the network or whoever else has personal liability in this not making a very generous settlement offer, probably in excess of the actual damages, considering that strict liability is virtually certain.

  5. I kept seeing this door with the hole in it on different news stations but not really paying attention to the story,WOW!!

  6. I am with Robert Clark on this one. Since there was no personal injury or death, the producers will make sure the property owners are made whole and then some.

    Had there been a fatality, I am wondering what charges might be brought. Murder is probably out, but what about manslaughter; and if so, who would be marched off in handcuffs?

  7. Dean Fox says:

    “Not convinced it was an ultra-hazardous activity when you take in to account the factors:

    (a) existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person, land, or chattels of others;

    Location – firing range – reasonable assumption risk is low.”

    Actually the reasonable assumption would be the risk had been minimized, “low” is a matter of fact for the judge and jury to decide.

    “(b) likelihood that the harm that results from it will be great;

    Thanks to mitigation and risk assessment risk of harm would have been low. They likely overlooked the possibility of cannon balls bouncing.”

    Again, a determination of fact.

    “(c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care;

    Reasonable care was taken the actually probability of the cannon ball doing what it did would have been considered quite small, prior to actual experimentation, if indeed it was considered at all.”

    In the history of warfare, the propensity for a cannonball bouncing is not only well known, it’s one of the physical facts that made cannons utilitarian against large bodies of troops. Cannons are not just siege weapons, they are also anti-personnel weapons and they are so for a reason: they have a larger kill zone than bullets due to both ricochet and shrapnel effects.

    “(d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of common usage;

    Firing range – well firing a cannon depending on definition of cannon and is perhaps a rare activity even there. The difference is in the projectile. Modern shells tend to be designed not to bounce. With hind sight their is a risk of cannon balls bouncing, who’d have thought it?”

    An expert on artillery would have thought it. They always use expert supervision (that I’ve seen) on the show when using explosives and the like. The question would be the qualifications of any experts they had hired to supervise the activity vis a vis artillery.

    “(e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and

    Up until the event a reasonable person would consider a firing range an appropriate place for the event.”

    Not necessarily so in re reasonableness. Given that the military has distinct facilities for firing ranges, artillery ranges and bombing ranges, it could be just as reasonable that a firing range did not meet the safety requirements of an artillery range.

    “(f) extent to which its value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes.

    This (s/w)ould have been taken in to account at time of planning for firing range and or housing.”

    And this is the issue, isn’t it? Was their planning adequate enough to mitigate damages? Since there is room for reasonable doubt, this case is ripe for a finding of facts to be presented before the court.

    “Sure they will be liable for damage and inconvenience but as to punitive penalties, I wouldn’t think so.”

    And I would think that whether their precautions were reasonable enough to preclude punitive penalty would be a matter for the trial courts to decide. However, that being said, what Robert Clark says is true. This matter – having resulted in no deaths – will likely be settled by the insurance company out of court.

  8. While being down to earth and having such passion and joy for their work, the show certainly seemed to take safety very serious. They also seemed to handle this very delicate situation with class.
    ===
    “It’s a wake-up call,” said Savage, 44, who like his 56-year-old partner lives in San Francisco. “Honestly, the feeling of embarrassment is not something we’re indulging in right now. We feel for the families and the people affected by this.”

    Read more: http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/MythBusters-hosts-Sorry-about-that-cannonball-2376113.php#ixzz1fyY6dYVe
    Link

  9. Don’t forget that there were cops onsite with the authority to shut it down if they had any doubt about the safety of what they were doing. I think that would be a huge factor in any legal action even if the cops have gotten a bit too much into the spirit of things over time.

    That said it sounds like a classic example of how people can rachet things up over time and not really be aware of the risks they’re taking (or how fat they’ve become or how high their debt is or…) If you told them 5 years ago that you wanted them to try to duplicate military grade artillery they would have said there was no way in Hell they would do it. Maybe on the dry lake bed site, but definitely not there.

    But after years of successfully firing progressively stronger cannons it’s natural to not see the risk in stepping it up just a little bit more. You’ve been doing this for years, right?…

  10. Chris
    1, December 8, 2011 at 3:30 pm
    … If you told them 5 years ago that you wanted them to try to duplicate military grade artillery they would have said there was no way in Hell they would do it.
    —————————-
    I don’t agree. For one thing, this wasn’t contemporary “military grade artillery” – it’s 18th century artillery. I’d be surprised if they ever build a shop-made WWII Howitzer, for instance, but they’ve built cannon-ball cannons before – and even shot them off on the east bay pointed towards down town SF.

    Dean Fox kept referring to the site of this event as “a firing range” – I’ve heard it described on the show (and in a press account) as the county bomb disposal (or training?) range. That distinction may be part of the problem – it’s a steep sided valley that will block most of the effect of explosions, but it’s up hill from the town. The cannon ball “at issue” broke through a concrete block* wall, and rolled down hill from the range into the residential area. I don’t think anyone really thought through the “what if” based on a large metal ball getting loose and rolling down the hillside.

    (* They should have known that un-reinforced concrete block walls aren’t very good at stopping big metal projectiles – they’ve shot a runaway oxygen tank through one…)

    In hindsight (of course) they should have done this at the dry lake bed in the Mojave, not uphill from a town.

    But for all of this, they really do know what they’re doing. They’re Hollywood Special Effects folks originally, so they know quite a bit about both not killing the filming crew, and not killing people in the vicinity of filming.

    A great song with a great video by Spike Jonze, and all too appropriate with a literal cannonball rolling though a subdivision:

    I hope that they don’t permanently “can” the footage of this event. I’d really like to understand what went wrong. (but it’s probably too much to hope that Kim and Kelly Deal are fans of the show and would authorize “Cannonball” to be used as the music for the segment… one can dream, though…)

  11. Good points about firing range. I recalled hearing it referred to as a range and knew that as well as blowing stuff up they’d also fired various things there. Including cannon balls through pig carcasses. My bad for thinking it was a properly protected range.

    They got lucky no one was hurt or killed. Regardless of the legal ramifications that would be a show stopper I expect; someone in the UK died in a show that allowed members of the public to learn and perform stunts. It was suggested it was a suicide but the show was immediately cancelled.

    I still believe they acted reasonably. Once could suggest they’d become complacent and I expect they will be wondering that too but generally people plan events on experience, whixh is why experience is so valuable, and up until today their experience wwas all their safety precautions were adequate. This will of course be a sobering event and now they and others who hear this story will consider the possibility of the bouncing cannon ball.

  12. Tom_23 – that may be one of the best public statements following a screw up I have ever read. They either have a great PR person or they are truly decent people. A lot of crooks, politicians (am I being redundant;) ) and CEOs could take a lesson here.

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