The Counsellor's Corner


Here is a decision by the Second District Court of Appeal in the State of California which makes absolutely no sense.  In this case the Court held that movie theaters which permit under-aged viewers to watch R-rated films are potentially liable with respect to lawsuits from the parents of the under-aged viewers but are not liable to victims when the under-aged viewers go out and commit crimes as a result of watching the movie.  In 1995, a 13-year-old was allowed in to see an R-rated movie called “Dead Presidents” and shortly after attending the movie he shot and killed someone.  The victim’s parents sued the AMC Movie chain for wrongful death and negligence in allowing the 13-year-old to view the R-rated movie.  It is alleged that no one at the theater required an ID from the under-aged youth. 

The Court of Appeal indicated that the purpose of the R-rating is to give parents information about a film so that they can decide whether or not they want their child to attend, and that as this is the goal, it does not create a duty to protect society.

The attorneys on the losing end of this decision argue that there should either be a duty to society as a whole, or there should not be a duty to anyone.  What makes this argument appealing to me is that the Court’s decision offers a cause of action to parents if their under-aged son is allowed to attend an R-rated movie and then commits suicide but does not allow a cause of action for the victims of violence perpetrated by the young man who is permitted to see the movie and then kills another.

Obviously a theater is not going to be held liable in any situation if a young man comes in with a well-crafted fake ID.  In that situation, if the theater employees check the ID and the person has this document that indicates he is old enough to attend the movie, the theater is off the hook.  In this case, however, it is alleged that no one from the theater checked the ID to determine the boy’s age. 

When someone is accused of statutory rape, i.e., having consensual sex with someone who is under the age of consent, it is no defense for the individual to say, “Well, she looked 18.”  He must have a good faith belief based on written evidence that the young lady was over 18 years of age.  If she were to show him a driver’s license with her date of birth, that would be an appropriate defense for the accused, even if it is discovered at a later time that the license is fraudulent.

I understand that courts are hesitant to create new causes of action that can open up large new areas of negligence law, however my request here is that the Court be consistent.  What if, instead of committing suicide, the young man who was allowed to see the movie came home and killed his parents?  The Court has held that his parents may have a cause of action.  Would that cause of action go to their estate?  This would seem to blend the two concepts; the parents would now be victims who the Court held do not have a cause of action in this type of case, however the parents are still the parents and the Court has deemed that the only cause of action permissible in this situation is on behalf of the parents.

I don’t think this decision was well considered, and it is my hope that it is appealed and that the State Supreme Court does a better job with it than did the Court of Appeal.  The law needs to be logical and consistent in order for society to have respect for it and for people to want to act in compliance with the law.


Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth.  Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.