In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law

The U.S. is famous in Germany for its 'runaway' juries which hand down zillion-dollar lawsuits against poor defenseless companies. Yet, as I told my dumbfounded students, Germany is a far more litigious society than the USA. In fact, according to a book-length 1998 study, Germany is the most lawsuit-happy country on earth:

Country Cases per 1,000 Population

• Germany 123.2
• Sweden 111.2
• Israel 96.8
• Austria 95.9
• U.S.A. 74.5
• UK/England & Wales 64.4
• Denmark 62.5
• Hungary 52.4
• Portugal 40.7
• France 40.3

My German students were dumbfounded by this fact. Most of them got their image of the world from the mainstream press. And, as usual, German journalists tended to obsess over the real or imagined failings of other countries, while remaining ignorant of what was going on in their backyard.

But aside from the good clean fun of this tu quoque response, it's interesting to think about why Germany is so litigious. I think there are 4 main reasons:

  • Legal insurance (Rechtschutzversicherung). Millions of Germans have legal insurance policies that pay for lawyers both to file claims and defend against them. This insurance is affordable because litigation costs in Germany are low. Legal insurance is actually an excellent idea, every country in the world could benefit from widespread legal insurance. What it means in Germany, though, is that if you have a policy, you don't have to think twice about filing a lawsuit. Granted, the lawyer is not supposed to file if you don't have a claim, but many do anyway. Legal insurance also provides a lifeline for many small-time lawyers — they can patch together a decent livelihood by having a constant docket of 40-50 small time cases going on at any time. None of these cases will generate a huge verdict, but a steady stream of small payments is enough.
  • Lawsuits are a fact of life. Nobody really takes them seriously. If your landlord hikes your rent, you use your legal-insurance lawyer to fight it. The landlord uses their legal-insurance lawyer to defend. After all, if you don't sue, you'll certainly have to pay the extra 10% in rent. If you do sue, you might end up with a discount. The landlord would probably do the same thing in your position, and knows this.
  • Close neighbors make bad blood. Germany is a small country packed with people. Everything you do in public is going to have some effect on your neighbors. If a potted plant falls off your city balcony, it's going to hit someone or something below. If your cat likes to relieve themselves on your neighbor's lawn, they're going to notice. And might just take lethal action. Your barbecue smoke is going to trigger someone's asthma 5 houses down. The list goes on and on. Every German state has a long, complex "neighbor law" (here's the one (g) for my state), and many lawyers do nothing else. And once again, these petty squabbles are going to end up in court because it's so easy to go to court because of legal insurance. 

And finally, no lawsuit is too tiny. As Wagner once said, a German is someone who will always do something for its own sake. Which means Germans will file a suit over anything. Why, here's a story (g) from the excellent criminal-defense blog lawblog. Two retirees went fishing for deposit bottles in Munich, a favorite pastime of poor Germans, or just ones who need some way to fill their days in the fresh air.*

They approached a large man-sized glass-recycling container, whipped out their grabbers, and started fishing around inside the container. Recycling containers are supposed to be reserved for bottles which don't have a deposit on them, like wine bottles. But many people don't care or don't know how to tell a deposit from a non-deposit bottle, and just toss everything in.

Sure enough, our two hunters found 15 deposit bottles with a total value of € 1.44. Two other Germans, who were certainly feeling very German that day, called the police and reported the bottle-fishers for theft. Wait, what? Two people minding their own business, helping recycle glass, augmenting their puny incomes, harming nobody, and their fellow Germans report them to the cops? Welcome to Deutschland, my friends.

Now German prosecutors are obliged to investigate every credible accusation of crime that comes to their attention, the famous "Principle of Legality"**. This they did. The first thing they had to determine was what the value of the theft was. Technically, this was a theft — once you throw a glass bottle into a recycling bin, it becomes the property of the recycling company. So you might think that the amount of the theft was the deposit value of the bottles. But no! It turns out that the recycling company does not separate out deposit bottles from other ones. Scandalous, I know. So all the bottles just get melted down. The prosecutor asked the recycling firm how much value the bottles would have as recycling material, and the firm said: basically, it's too small to even put a number on.

At this time, the prosecutor chose to halt the proceedings (einstellen) based on the idea that there was no public interest in prosecuting the offenders. The writer at lawblog thinks this was the wrong reason to stop the prosecution — he thinks a better theory is to deny the people had any attempt to commit theft, because they had no intent to take possession of the bottles — their ultimate goal was simply to transfer them to a different owner. 

Be that as it may, the main thing to notice here is that several different government employees spent hours of their time and used considerable resources to investigate an accusation of a crime which, at the very most, involved the lordly sum of € 1.44. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that the German state spent 1000 times more money investigating the theft than it was actually worth in the first place.

Now, am I going to snigger about this? Of course I am, and so are you. But at the same time, I'm not going to go too far. The most important thing to keep in mind about high numbers of lawsuits is that they are an important sign of social health. In the vast majority of societies, lawsuits are prohibitively expensive and courts are woefully underfunded and corrupt, so nobody trusts them. Germans and Americans trust courts to usually resolve legal disputes in a fair and equitable manner, otherwise they wouldn't seek them out so often. They're right to do so; both the USA and Germany have exceptionally fair and efficient legal systems, despite their imperfections. A fair, professional, and generally non-corrupt legal system is one of humanity's most important achievements, full stop. Most countries don't yet have one. If you happen to live in a country which does, take a moment and thank your lucky stars. 

* You'd be surprised how many Germans decide they just don't fancy showing up to work anymore and having someone boss them around and tell them to do things. So they develop something hard to pin down, such as a bad back or burnout stress, hire a good employment lawyer, and presto! They're still technically employed in a certain sense, but they don't actually have to, you know, do anything. Everybody wins: their former employers are free of someone who wasn't really contributing, the employee has all the free time he wants, and most importantly, the government doesn't have to formally add this person to the unemployment rolls. Northern European welfare states are notorious worldwide for using a million different tricks to lower their official unemployment rate, and this is just one.

** Some German lawyers, or wanna-be lawyers, believe a lot of adorably misguided things about the principle of legality. If you begin talking about the American legal system, they will get up on their hind legs and begin intoning something like this: "Well, you see, in America most criminal cases are resolved by plea-bargains, where the defendant admits a crime — quite possibly not the one he actually committed — in return for a lighter sentence. This shows the irresponsible, frivolous gamesmanship of the system, where the objective truth of what happened can be bargained away as if justice were nothing more than a poker game. Here in Germany (string music starts swelling in the background), we believe in the principle of legality, which means the prosecutor must investigate all crimes and must prosecute based on the objective facts of what the defendant actually did."

It's at this point that I usually interject to point out that this speech is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crock of shit. First, German prosecutors are absolutely not obliged to bring every case to prosecution. As with all German legal principles, the principle of legality has a pragmatic loophole so big you could fit Saturn through it. A prosecutor is always permitted to "suspend" (einstellen) a prosecution if it is deemed a petty offence (§ 153, Criminal Procedure Code). Suspend is yet another German euphemism, it means the case is dropped. Although there may be a tiny theoretical chance of it being re-started, this basically never happens.

There are many other sections of the Code that permit the prosecution to suspend the investigation or to not bring charges on a variety of different grounds, the most frequently used being the prosecution's belief that bringing charges is "not in the public interest" for some reason. As you might guess, there are hundreds of stories of prosecutors suspending prosecution of high-powered or well-connected people for vague reasons. In fact, there's a whole book (g) ("Prosecution Unwanted!") about this, although it's not very convincing overall.

Also, if you believe plea bargains don't exist in Germany, I've got a bridge in Moscow I'd like to sell you. Even before plea bargains were legally allowed in Germany, it was common knowledge that prosecutors used their huge discretion to plea-bargain all the time. Like American prosecutors, German prosecutors are hopelessly understaffed, and the entire justice system would collapse if cases couldn't be resolved informally.

The practice became so notorious that eventually the federal legislature decided to stop pretending and legalize it. In 2009, it passed a law which, for the first time, legally recognized plea-bargaining in Germany. The law was full of procedural safeguards meant to ensure that the defendants' rights were respected and the principle of legality was not undermined. Would the law pass constitutional muster? The German Federal Constitutional Court held that it did, in 2013:

The Notary, Our Noble Master

Gardeavue

Watched this classic again last night. Lino Ventura plays a detective who subjects a wealthy local lawyer — suspect in the rape and murder of two young girls — to an hours-long interrogation in police headquarters. Lino Ventura intensely watchable as always with his Easter Island head and ludicrously gigantic hands. And Michel Serrault is perfectly cast as the clever, oleaginous yet despairing suspect. Romy Schneider, as his wife, is just plain Romy. She never really becomes anyone else no matter what role she plays, but you won't hear me complaining.

I first saw this movie years ago, before I was even a lawyer, in the U.S. Part of a Romy Schneider film festival. As I watched it again, a few memories of my earlier reaction to the movie came back. First of all, I remember being surprised when the detective tells the suspect that he can call a lawyer, but the lawyer is not entitled to meet him. "Whoa," I thought back then, "that's totally unconstitutional!" Which it would have been, in America.

The second cultural misunderstanding comes from the fact that everyone keeps mentioning that the suspect, Jérôme Martinaud, is a "notary". As an American, I said: "Who cares?" Yet this fact is mentioned several times, and the script calls attention to when and whether characters refer to the suspect as Master (Maître, the official designation for French lawyers and some other professionals). 

In fact, at the time I saw the movie, I was a notary, even though I didn't even have a college degree. In the U.S., the only function of a "notary public" is to put a stamp on official sworn documents. You just ask someone if the document is accurate, get them to sign it, and stamp it. Anyone over 18 who doesn't have a serious criminal record can be a notary. Anyone. You just fill out a form, pay a small fee, and bingo! you're in.

The situation is vastly different in Continental Europe, where notaries must be lawyers. Not only that, they benefit from an ancient privilege system that (1) requires dozens of different kinds of documents to be notarized, and (2) limits the overall number of notaries. This grants most notaries a regional monopoly, reducing competition and driving up costs. The Economist describes the cultural divide:

Notaries are important gatekeepers in many economies, in particular when it comes to establishing property rights—the bedrock of markets. At best, notaries are facilitators who, for instance, verify the identity of the signatories of contracts and the veracity of their statements. At worst, they are overpaid bureaucrats who delay the passage of simple transactions and bloat their cost.

By contrast, notaries are unknown in many common-law countries, such as Britain and its former empire, which take a more freewheeling approach to contracts. America is the odd country out: although its legal system is based on common law, it boasts 4.8m notaries, many part-time. Yet these exist mainly to satisfy America’s maddening appetite for stamps and seals, and have little in common with their highly qualified European namesakes. “They are butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers,” scoffs a European notary.

Both traditions have their drawbacks. In Europe notaries’ highly regulated work has made them the most prosperous of lawyers. Tax returns suggest that Italian notaries are paid better than any other professionals (though perhaps they are most honest about their earnings). A report in 2004 found that notaries made up 22 of Slovenia’s 100 highest earners. French ones are the most privileged of all, says Gisela Shaw, an expert on the profession. They can compete with solicitors to provide legal services. They may sell their practice when they retire.

A website on French property law notes:

With about 5,000 offices, 7,500 notaires and 40,000 assistants, the notarial profession has representation all over France and has an effective monopoly. The Notaire is the public official responsible for receiving all the "actes" and contracts to which the parties wish to confer the seal of authenticity, to assure their date, to hold them in trust and to deliver authentic copies of them.

The Notaire is under the authority of the Minister of Justice (Ministère de la Justice) and is appointed by decree. The Notaire's office (Etude) depends geographically on the area in which he lives.

So the status Jérôme enjoys result from the fact that he is a member of perhaps the most privileged group in French society: lawyers who have gained a coveted notary position. One of Jérôme's first lines of defense is that people are always starting rumors about him because they envy his wealth and social status, which explains why people are circulating unfounded rumors about his involvement in the murders.

It doesn't happen often, but there you have it: an instance in which comparative-law knowledge deepens your understanding of art!

Melania Wasn’t “Sad”, She was Slavic

During Donald Trump's inauguration, his Slovene wife Melania looked sober and serious most of the time. This has led Americans to believe she was sad, depressed, horrified, anguished, perhaps even trapped in an abusive relationship.

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What these slightly fatuous Americans don't understand is that the European conception of personal dignity and institutional respect demands that public figures taking part in official ceremonies look serious at all times. In Europe, there is no penalty for looking stiff, even scowling, during official ceremonies; that's expected. There can be a significant penalty for a smile, or for any sign of levity. So everyone plays it safe and refrains from all except fleeting smiles.

Let me make my point with pictures of Supreme Courts. First, the American:

US Supreme Court

By my count, we have a whopping six smiles: the entire back row (Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan) and two in the front (Roberts and Kennedy). Justice Scalia, the balding Italian man sitting next to the black guy, is wearing a sort of half-smile. Justice Thomas, the black guy, is wearing an angry scowl, his resting face, which seems out of place in this photograph, but would be perfectly normal in Europe.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the far right, seems to be cringing in terror. In fact, she seems to be looking at the same thing which has attracted Justice Thomas' attention. Maybe this photo was taken just seconds after the naked knife-wielding maniac broke into the photo studio screaming about CIA mind control: so far, only Thomas and Ginsburg notice him. Fortunately, he was tased by security before he could reach the Legal Minds.

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh right, facial expressions. Since Melania is Slovene, here's the Slovenian Supreme Constitutional Court:

Slovene

The first thing you notice about this official picture from the Court's website is how shitty it is. It's only 71 KB in size, and 60% of that is the surroundings. The picture is so crappy that if you zoom in to try to see whether any of the Justices are smiling, their faces devolve into pixelblurs. You get the definite impression that the Justices probably thought the entire idea of having their picture taken is a ridiculous waste of time, and tried to make it as unrevealing as possible. Nevertheless, I think we can still safely say: no open-mouthed smiles, possibly a mild expression of amusement on the woman in the center's face. That's all.

Bundesverfassungsgericht-senat_2

Here's the Second Senate of the German Federal Constitutional Court. Two open-mouthed smiles, the rest tight-lipped neutral expressions. Here's the First Senate:

Bvg_senat_1_2010

One open-mouthed grin. I can't even find a decent group photo of the French Court de Cassation (which has 85 members divided into a bunch of different groups), but the individual photos of the group leaders here (f) feature no open-mouthed smiles I can find.

And just to round things out, the European Court of Justice:

RTEmagicC_European-Court-of-Justice-Members-2013.jpg

A few smiles, a few scowls, but mostly neutral, purposeful expressions.

And in this particular respect, Slavs seem to be even more serious and scowly than Western Europeans. Here's the Polish Constitutional Tribunal:

Members-of-Polands-Supreme-Court

Being a Slav, as they say, is serious business.

So Melania wasn't "sad", you chirpy, fleering American flibbertygibberts. She was just showing respect by adopting a serious Slavic scowl.

You Cannot Film the Police in Germany

The German press is fascinated and disturbed by videos of American police using excessive force, like the one above.

Why do these videos exist? Because in the United States, it is every citizens' constitutional right to film the police doing their job unless they are interfering with police work:

Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes the outside of federal buildings, as well as transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties.

Police often tell people to stop filming, but those cops don't know the law. Unless the videos are obscene, you can post those videos to the Internet with full constitutional protection, and that's exactly what people do. They are then played over and over on German websites.

Can you film cops arresting people in Germany and then post that video straight to the Internet? The short answer is: absolutely not. The somewhat longer answer is: Sure, you can do it, but you could well be sued for tens of thousands of Euro, and have to wait for a court decision about whether the public interest in publishing the video was stronger than the privacy rights of the people displayed.

The crucial background to know about this issue is that German law gives people powerful protections over the use of their own image and voice and the protection of their privacy — legal protections which most Germans appreciate, and which don't exist to anywhere near the same extent in the US. The question then becomes whether police officers doing their jobs in public enjoy these same protections. Many German courts have held that they do.  

Marvin Oppong, a journalist for the 'torial' (g) blog in Germany who wanted to film his own questioning by police decided to look into the matter in detail. He interviewed several lawyers nad journalists. Here's a summary of what he learned:

  • Can you take pictures of the police? German courts are all over the place on this issue. Some say this is basically allowed in public spaces. It also depends on where. Inside buildings such as train stations you may be prohibited from doing so because of station rules. According to other decisions, the police can also request that you delete the photos or promise not to distribute them in any way or they will sue civilly. 
  • Can you video record your own encounters with the police? Yes, unless it interferes with their work. However, you may face civil or criminal liability if you distribute the results in any way without the officers' consent, since they have a right to control the distribution of their own image. Recording their voices is only permissible in a 'completely open and public' situation. If that is not the case, then simply recording their voices is actually a crime bringing up to three years' imprisonment. You read that right: if the situation is not deemed public (whatever that means), merely recording someone's spoken words is itself a crime. If the policeman knows you are recording his voice and doesn't object, that may be a defense. 
  • Can you publish photos and videos of a police encounter on the Internet? No: German courts have held that publishing videos of a police officer's conduct on the internet creates a 'pillorying' effect that violates the police officer's right to the protection of his personality (Persönlichkeitsrecht in German). This is so even though you are filming the officer doing his or her job in public. You may be able to publish general photos of public events, but a photo that clearly focuses in on one officer will violate that officer's right to control over the distribution of their own image. Which means you will need the officer's permission to publish it.
  • Can police ask you to identify yourself if they see you filming them? Basically, yes. They can also bring you to the police station for questioning if you don't have any personal ID with you.
  • Are the rules different for journalists? Possibly. If they are filming an incident of public importance, they may be able to claim that their right to do their job outweighs the officers' rights.

So, to sum up: if you are a private citizen and see German police officers engaging in questionable conduct in public and post a video of that in the Internet — as Americans do hundreds of times every day — you will enter a legal minefield of contradictory court precedents. You will probably expose yourself to tens of thousands of euros in damages as well as possible criminal prosecution. Your only hope is if a court, in your specific case, finds that the public interest served by your publishing the video outweighed all of the restrictions German law places on taping and photographing people. Even police officers doing their job in public.

When Can German Police Stop and Question You?

Public service time! In the USA, there is a cottage industry of people spreading the word about what rights citizens have during encounters with police. One of the best videos is from 'Flex Your Rights'. It's just below. The video addresses automobile stops and house searches, but I decided to concentrate on this post on police stopping and questioning people on foot. The video starts just as a a police car pulls up to question a young black male. The cops are investigating illegal graffiti in the area. The lawyer comments on each step of the transaction: 

So what's the situation in Germany? A popular German legal website has a short but informative article here (g). The basic ground rules:

Police must always give you a reason for stopping and questioning you. However, this reason does not alway have to be a concrete suspicion. In certain circumstances police are permitted to stop people as a preventive measure to avoid dangers to public safety (Gefahrenabwehr). These are not intended to assist in investigating a crime, but rather preventing one.

For this justification to apply, it needs to be shown that a danger to public safety exists at a particular location — for instance, a demonstration in which disturbances are likely to take place, or a well-known drug market where crimes are routine.

Such places are often named specifically in your local state's local-policing law — for instance Bavaria allows suspicionless public-safety searches where large numbers of prostitutes gather. Also, in special circumstances police can declare entire regions of a city 'danger zones', as Hamburg did in 2014 during left-wing demonstrations.

And what if the police do stop you based on general location? You are required to answer basic questions: your name, your address, your nationality, date and place of birth. The police can ask you to present an identification card (either the German national identity card or a passport), but you are not required to carry this identification around with you everywhere, so if you don't have it with you, that is not against the law.

The police may ask you further questions, such as where you are coming from and where you are going, but you are not required to answer them. A lawyer quoted in the article recommends that you do answer them in a polite but very curt manner, since this is likely to de-escalate the situation.

Note that this applies only when the police stop you without any concrete suspicion you have committed a crime. If they do have such a suspicion, they may be entitled to ask more questions.

The police are also permitted to engage in questioning of random people without individualized suspicion of crime at airports and train stations and trains. The purpose of these stops is usually to try to find illegal immigrants. A German court has found that stopping someone based solely on their appearance or skin color is unconstitutional according to the German Basic Law. (The lawyer in me says they will almost certainly find other ways to justify the search, though.)

Coming to the Rescue of Starving Artists

Whitney Kimball looks at why American visual artists don't profit from resales the way European artists do:

U.S. copyright law protects “published” works, and a work of art is not “published,” simply made and sold—so once a work of art is out of an artist’s hands, the future profits, too, are gone. This system is unique to the art world; in other fields, artists are understood to have the right to a share of the proceeds of their works long after the works are first made….

…Meanwhile, artist resale royalties (or droit de suite) have long been a basic right in 70 other countries; France has had such a system since 1920, and the European Union standardized it across the continent in 2001. They’re so common that the U.S. Copyright Office specifically revised its position on artists’ royalties last year, recommending that Congress revisit the issue.

Now, Congress has that chance: the recently proposed American Royalties Too (A.R.T.) Act, a bill which would give artists a 5 percent cut of the profits when their works are resold at auction. The bill has its flaws: It applies only to auctions and not private dealings. But 5 percent is also a slim and fair share, compared with the auction houses’ 12to 25 percent buyers’ premiums—though even 5 percent looks too fat to slip under the door. An earlier version of the bill, the Equity for Visual Artists Act, failed to attract a single co-sponsor in 2011, and over the past few years, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have been raining upward of $1 million on lobbying against royalties. At this writing, govtrack.us gives the A.R.T. Act a 2 percent prospect of being enacted.

It’s telling that in more than 70 countries that have now adopted some form of artist royalties, the only major debate has come from the U.K., which has the second largest art market after the U.S., and adopted artist royalties in 2006. When droit de suite was proposed for the U.K. in 2000, the British Art Market Federation forecasted implosion: Even a 4 percent royalty could send thousands of jobs overseas, they warned, and affect five times as many sales as covered by droit de suite. The alarms managed to stall the implementation of droit de suite in the U.K. until 2006. But years after implementation, studies have shown that the law barely affected sales.

If that’s any indication, artists’ royalties don’t harm the market. They can provide some measure of security to artists, especially later in life; they are common most everywhere in the world; and they are recommended by the U.S. Copyright Office. But all this is beside the point. America forgot about a basic rights law, and for many, the conversation comes a lifetime too late.

The U.S. Copyright office report linked to in the article is a model of thorough yet readable legal analysis. Among other things, it recounts that the origin of the droit de suite was a French engraving (from p.4, edited for clarity):

The resale right, or droit de suite, as it is often called in Europe, derives from a bundle of privileges commonly and collectively known as “moral rights.” Where other moral rights assure attribution (paternity) or protect against mutilation (integrity), the resale right provides visual artists with an opportunity to benefit from the increased value of their works over time by granting them a percentage of the proceeds from the resale of their original works of art. France was the first country to implement droit de suite in 1920, after a widely published lithograph by artist Jean-Louis Forain poignantly portrayed “starving artists.” … Forain’s lithograph, which depicts two impoverished children looking into an auction house window where a painting, apparently created by their father, is on display for a high price, with the caption “Un tableau de Papa!” (“One of father’s paintings!”)

My Forthcoming Book: Ending the Death Penalty

 (Forgive the blurb. New posts Book Cover below!)

A note to my readers: My first book, Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective, will be published in the UK on May 14, 2010 by Palgrave MacMillan. You can pre-order it at Palgrave's website here, at Amazon.com here, and at Amazon.de here.

I've often heard the question "Why does the United States still practice the death penalty"? I wrote this book to hazard an answer to an even more interesting question: "Why does Europe no longer have the death penalty?" I analyze the question based on the historical examples of Great Britain, France, and Germany, then try to place the resulting conclusions in global perspective. More information here.

Autoerotic Asphyxiation in the Serbonian Bog

So, it seems that David Carradine, last seen in the 'Kill Bill' movies, may have died accidentally during an episode of autoerotic asphyxiation:

Carradine, 72, was found naked in a closet in an upscale Bangkok hotel on Thursday with cords around his neck and his genitals. The police are checking DNA found on the cords, but say they found no signs of a struggle, suggesting that Carradine might have either tied himself up or submitted voluntarily to his incapacitation.

This calls for a divagation! Way back when, when I was supposed to be studying for the bar exam, I found the material hideously dull, and scoured the library for more intriguing Lernstoff. When I saw the book Autoerotic Asphyxiation: Forensic, Medical and Social Aspects, I knew I'd hit paydirt. What was this book doing in a law library, you ask? Simple: the question whether a person committed suicide or died during an episode of autoerotic asphyxiation often determines whether a life insurance policy will be paid. Life insurance policies don't pay off in cases of suicide and "intentional self-injury."

The book wasn't just about autoerotic asphyxiation, though: the unfortunate subjects of the chapters had done themselves in using all sorts of creative props: duct tape, vacuum cleaners, and in one particularly poignant case, a record player. In that case, the respectable family man (it was almost always solid family men, usually engineers and accountants) locked himself in his master bedroom and activated a secret device designed to bring him ecstasy. It was record turntable to which was attached a live, frayed electrical wire. The turntable would brush the live wire against his nipple just long enough to cause an exciting shock, but not long enough to kill him. Then, 33 and 1/2 or 45 or (gasp) 78 rpm later, the nipple gets it again. And again. And again! Unfortunately for our hero, one of the strands of wire got stuck, somehow and refused to budge. He was dead in seconds. It all happened in his own suburban home on a weekend, just about lunchtime. I remember reading about that case and thinking: if only he had used his prodigious talents for good…

But let's get back to the question at hand: whether autoerotic asphyxiation is "intentional self-injury." This leads to some pretty intriguing legal analysis, as in this splendid case from the Maryland Court of Appeals:

There are, to be sure, countless activities that are inherently dangerous, albeit more socially acceptable, than autoerotic as-phyxiation. Skydiving, bungee jumping, white water rafting, parasailing, mountain climbing, and scuba diving are among the activities that come to mind. Several imperfect analogies may be helpful in our analysis.

When a sky diver jumps from an airplane, he or she is unlikely to survive if the parachute malfunctions. Arguably, the parachute is akin to the escape mechanism utilized by the Insured during autoerotic hanging. A skydiver's voluntary and knowing participation in an activity as risky as skydiving would not necessarily preclude a finding of death by accident, in the event that the risk of parachute failure materializes. Nor would the resulting fatal injury necessarily be regarded as inten-tionally self-inflicted, merely because the skydiver deliberately jumped from the plane and the parachute failed to operate. The same rationale applies here; the offensive or foolish nature of the conduct does not determine the result.

Similarly, if a person intentionally stands at the edge of a cliff and then falls off, he surely would have suffered an accident, however perilous or foolish it may have been to walk so close to the edge. Nor can it be said that, merely by walking close to the edge, and flirting with danger, the indi-vidual intentionally jumped.

In sum, we conclude that the injuries sustained by the Decedent were the result of an accident, and were not intentionally self-inflicted. The noose and plastic bag were not used with the intent to cause injury, and the Insured reasonably did not foresee or expect such injuries.

Unfortunately for the relatives of 'the Insured', the Maryland Supreme Court heard the appeal of this case and issued its own decision (.pdf) holding that the autoerotic asphyxiee had, in fact, died of 'intentional self-injury,' so no insurance payout. In this last-cited decision, the court mentions that to determine the difference between accident and intentional self-injury, the court must wade into the "Serbonian bog."

“Serbonian bog” is derived judicially from Justice Cardozo's dissenting opinion in Landress v. Phoenix Mut. Life Ins. Co., 291 U.S. 491, 499, 54 S.Ct. 461, 463, 78 L.Ed. 934, 937 (1934) (Cardozo, J., dissenting). He explained therein that, in an insurance case, attempting to distinguish “between accidental results and accidental means will plunge this branch of law into a Serbonian bog.”

We expand, where Cardozo apparently felt no need for his assumptively more literate readership, a bit on the literary and geographic etiology and practical connotation of the “Serbonian bog” reference. Judge Karwacki, in his dissent in Sheets v. Brethren Mut. Ins. Co., 342 Md. 634, 661-62, 679 A.2d 540, 553 (1996), observed that the description emanated from Book 2 of Paradise Lost:

Beyond this flood a frozen Continent
Lies dark and wilde, beat with perpetual storms
Of Whirlwind and dire Hail, which on firm land
Thaws not, but gathers heap, and ruin seems
Of ancient pile; all else deep snow and ice,
A gulf profound as that SERBONIAN Bog
Betwixt DAMIATA and mount CASIUS old,
Where Armies whole have sunk: the parching Air
Burns frore, and cold performs th' effect of Fire.
Thither by harpy-footed Furies hail'd,
At certain revolutions all the damn'd
Are brought: and feel by turns the bitter change
Of fierce extreams, extreams by change more fierce,
From Beds of raging Fire to starve in Ice
Thir soft Ethereal warmth, and there to pine
Immovable, infixt, and frozen round,
Periods of time, thence hurried back to fire.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, bk. 2, 1.592 (1667). Judge Karwacki also pointed out that Lake Serbonis, which the bog apparently bordered, was situated in lower ancient Egypt, near Palestine. Sheets, 342 Md. at 662, 679 A.2d at 553.

Although the reference is perhaps more obscure today than it was in Justice Cardozo's time, the message is clear in context. It refers to a “mess from which there is no way of extricating oneself.” E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1121-22 (1898).

So now you know about the legal consequences of autoerotic asphyxiation and have learned what the Serbonian Bog is. Not bad for a day's work, eh? I'll be traveling over the weekend, so blogging will be light. Cheers!