Crime & Courts

Kansas justice invokes ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in legal dissent

As part of making a point, Justice Caleb Stegall cited a scene in the 2003 Disney film “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
As part of making a point, Justice Caleb Stegall cited a scene in the 2003 Disney film “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Courtesy photo

A Kansas Supreme Court justice invoked material from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” film in a case that began with a wreck on Bill Snyder Highway.

The case stems from a Riley County car accident in October 2009. After a few beers one night, an 18-year-old rolled his father’s pickup across the median of K-177 just north of Interstate 70.

A passerby stopped to call 911. A Riley County Police Department squad car was dispatched to the scene. A police officer, Juan Apodaca, did not see the disabled pickup and slammed into it going 104 mph, seriously injuring himself and an officer in the passenger seat.

Apodaca sued the pickup driver, Matthew Willmore, for negligence.

The main issue is whether something called the “firefighter’s rule” applies to law enforcement officers like Apodaca. The rule prohibits firefighters from suing the person who was negligently responsible for causing a fire for injuries they suffer in responding to a fire.

A majority on the Kansas Supreme Court sided with the Kansas Court of Appeals and the Shawnee County District Court by deciding that the “firefighter’s rule” should apply to law enforcement officers. And the court ruled that several exceptions to the rule did not apply to Apodaca’s case.

Justice Lee Johnson argued in a dissent that the majority was denying the right to a legal remedy on the basis of job title.

In a separate dissent, Justice Caleb Stegall agreed that something like the “firefighter’s rule” should apply to law enforcement officers in Kansas. But he said the principle shouldn’t be considered a “rule” and that courts are “imposing judicial policy preferences as a matter of law.”

Stegall argued that the application of a standard still “leaves work to be done.” As part of making his point, he cited a scene in the 2003 Disney film “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

At one point, the villain in the movie, Captain Barbossa, denies releasing one of the protagonists, Elizabeth Swann, after she cites the Pirate’s Code on letting prisoners go.

“The Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules,” Barbossa tells Swann in the film, which Stegall quoted in his dissent.

Stegall wrote that miscasting a standard of conduct as a rule of law effectively assigns the “fact-finding and discretionary function of juries” to judges.

“We ought to avoid this,” Stegall said.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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