If you’ve turned on the TV, or read the news online, or even so much as looked at Facebook, you probably heard about the runaway blimp. On October 28th, a military surveillance blimp somehow came loose from its mooring at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The 240 foot long unmanned blimp went on a 3 and a half hour jaunt out of Maryland and through Pennsylvania, before being brought down by shotgun blasts fired by Pennsylvania State Police and crashing into a forest.
While the idea of a runaway blimp might seem to be no cause for concern, it turns out that it isn’t the balloon you have to worry about… it’s the tether dragging across the ground that poses a serious problem. The balloon was attached to 6,600 feet of tether measuring 1 1/8” inch in diameter, made from an artificial fiber called Vectran. Vectran is an extremely strong material that has been used in everything from bike tires to the landing airbags for the 1997 and 2004 moon rovers. And in this case, the balloon was dragging around roughly 3,000 pounds of Vectran rope that is 5 times stronger than steel. It’s safe to say that when the rope hit something, the rope won.
The 35,000 people who lost power after the tether severed powerlines all across the state could testify to that. According to witnesses, the tether managed to knock over several power poles and trees as well. Someone, somewhere, probably came back out of a grocery store and found one heck of a ding in their car door. And what about all the food that spoiled in the refrigerators of those who lost power? Is the government responsible for all of that?
So, what happens when the government breaks your stuff?
Craig Ashton explained the tricky matter of suing the government: “The case for those who have been impacted, for instance, if it hit anybody’s home, or fell on anybody and injured them, would be the Federal Torts Claims Act. Essentially, that allows you to get around sovereign immunity, because government entities are immune to liability unless they grant you the right to take action against them, and the Federal Torts Claims Act would cover that.
“So, what we have here is the blimp hit some power lines and clearly knocked power out to thousands of people. And then they can’t watch, perhaps, the Republican debate, the World Series maybe, perhaps they’re having a birthday party and now the candles are the only illumination that they have, their food is spoiling because the refrigerator’s not working… people are suffering damages. The question becomes, how far does the liability extend? Because liability appears to be clear. I mean, I think it’s res ipsa loquitur—which means ‘the thing speaks for itself’—if you lose a blimp! That just means you’re probably not acting reasonably. A reasonable person taking care of a blimp doesn’t lose it. Losing a pen, perhaps. You can do that, and maybe you’re not negligent, it just basically happened.”
Ed Schade stepped in to bring home the point that losing a pen is one thing; when you manage to lose a 240 foot long blimp and 3,000 pounds of space age rope, “But for negligence, this never would have happened.”
Craig then went on to elaborate: “So, the issue really is, is that, how far [does the liability] extend? It probably extends clearly to the owner of the property that the blimp fell on. But does it extend to the 10,000 people around and all the damages? Because maybe each one of them just suffered a hundred dollars’ worth of damage in regard to the food that spoiled. And times that by 10,000 and that’s what, that’s a million bucks, right? So that’s the question. It’s a societal question about, there’s proximate cause, and then there’s direct causation.”
The show went to break, and when the crew returned, Craig paused to explain direct and proximate causation and how it relates to the law by laying out an analogy: “This morning, just when I was getting on the freeway, there was an accident at Prairie City, right in Folsom… It had the effect for me of stopping traffic… The people behind [the accident] are now all burning extra gas, may be late for an important appointment like doing a radio show; ultimately, they may be late for work, they’re using more of their brakes, so there are damages for thousands of people behind that accident.
“The issue is that, there are damages that extend far afield from just the car that was hit, right? But the law says, ‘Look, we’re not extending it that far, because every accident on the freeway would expose you to millions of dollars in damages.’ People could say, ‘I just missed an appointment. I could have sold that house. I lost $10,000 in commission…’ But the law says, ‘You clearly directly caused that, but from a societal standpoint we’re not going to extend your exposure that far, it’s just not practical…’
“So, in this case I guess it’s going to be determined whether or not you’re going to hold the federal government responsible for all the damages associated with the thousands of people that lost their power, if they can prove damages.”
The group immediately recognized the difficulty in doing that, with Tim Hodson observing, “It’s unlikely. Government claims are hard to get in the first place.”
After a moment of commiseration on these difficulties, Craig commented on the positive aspects of claims against the government: “It’s a slow process. But if your damages are well-documented, they’re usually relatively fair with you, because litigation… they don’t have a stake in it. The employee… it’s not their money, and they don’t feel like it’s their money…
“The nice thing for plaintiffs… is that the Federal Torts Claim Act basically limits attorney’s fees to 20%. So, [plaintiffs] do much better, and ultimately, the process takes longer, but my experience with the Federal Torts Claims Act is that the fairness aspect of it is more there, and it’s less cantankerous and confrontational.”
Ed immediately pointed out that in the case of the runaway blimp, “Yeah, the nice thing about this, it’s well-documented. I mean, everybody and their mother was out there filming this. So you just go on Google and go, ‘Hey, here’s what happened, that’s my house underneath, and I’d like you to replace the roof… the dragline went over.’”
So, for the people of Pennsylvania who suffered damages due to the blimp’s rampage, the takeaway is: if the blimp directly hit you or something you own, then it’s time to call a lawyer. Otherwise, you probably don’t have a claim, because the chain of events between a blimp breaking free and your freezer defrosting is too long and complicated for the law to consider the government to be directly responsible for your losses. In that case, all you can do is head to the grocery store…