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Thin Skull Principle

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In law, one may come across many individuals who support a certain belief or religion. It is entrenched in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United States Bill of Rights that the law cannot distinguish one belief or religion from another, and that it is our right to choose whichever faith we deem to suit our lifestyles and principles. If so, then when in court, is it acceptable to make judgement when recognizing and taking into account the practices of faith of a person?

There are multiple cases in which the “thin skull” rule is used and in where religion is involved with the defendants or plaintiffs case. In cases where a person is in dire need of, but rejects medical assistance due to religious beliefs the thin skull rule should not apply when the plaintiff is attempting to sue the defendant. If not treated the condition of the plaintiff may deteriorate greatly and seeing as it was the plaintiff’s choice to not receive medical intervention, the defendant is not at fault for any recurring or lasting injuries. This essay will present that the thin skull rule should not apply to those attempting to use it when they have declined medical treatment in hopes of gaining compensation for something that they could have prevented or had repaired but didn’t due to religious reasons.

The thin skull rule is “an additional exposure in tort liability towards persons who are particularly vulnerable or more fragile than the norm, who may have inherent weaknesses or a pre-existing vulnerability or condition; the tort-feasor takes his victim as he finds them; he compensates for all damages he caused, even if damages are elevated compared to a norm because the plaintiff was thin skulled.”

In order to understand the application and importance of this rule one could consider the following example. Imagine person A has osteoporosis and person B does not. If C’s negligence caused A to fall much more damage would be incurred due to the underlying condition than if B had been caused to fall. The thin skull rule would allow A to sue for all the damages even though they would be far more costly than if B or any other normal individual had been injured by C’s negligence. This rule is an important mechanism within our civil justice system.

The thin skull rule is an important part of Tort law however there are cases where the plaintiff exploits it in order to receive compensation in situations where their religious views ended up causing extended damage. For example, the case of Friedman v. New York illustrates how a young, unmarried Jewish woman sued the state of New York for damages. While on a trip to the Catskills the operator of a chairlift ride wrongfully closed down the chairlift, believing that all passengers were off. But in fact, Ms. Friedman and Mr. Katz, another passenger, had been forgotten and left on the chairlift together.

Ms. Friedman was taught that it is against Jewish law to be alone with a man after dark in an inaccessible location. Being very religious and wanting to remain in good faith with Jewish law, Ms. Friedman dove from the chairlift and suffered sustaining injuries as a result. At this point it is necessary to understand that taken into consideration by judges and jurors when ruling is the actions of the reasonable man. The reasonable man “is an must be a scientific person, devoid of beliefs. One must act scientifically to reduce damages. One is bound to do what, apart from any beliefs, would mitigate injuries. If one does not, the loss stays on him or her.” (The Beliefs of a Reasonable Person 50)

The concept of the reasonable person is one we can appreciate and understand. If someone is stuck in a ski lift for the night, it is reasonable that they receive reparation for damages caused by the operator’s negligence. However if one jumps from a ski lift to escape their male companion because the religion says they cannot be alone at night with him and while jumping they suffer injuries, it is unreasonable that the tort-feasor, the lift operator, be held liable for those injuries as well. Conversely if this same non religious person jumped from the ski lift because they held a belief that being alone at night would make them seem promiscuous and they did not want to be perceived that way, a court, jury or reasonable person would say that it would be ridiculous to ask for the extra compensation for damages caused by the jump.

This is where the disparity between religious and non-religious beliefs comes up when applying the thin skull rule and is a prime reason why it should not be allowed as a case claim. The idea of the thin skull principle was to allow victims who are more prone to injury because of an underlying physical or mental condition to receive just compensations. If we allow victims who have neither a physical or mental medical condition to use a religious belief in a situation, in which self-injury is unnecessary, to sue for more compensation, we would in effect be reducing religion to the level of a physical or mental illness or disability.

If someone refuses medical treatment on religious grounds or to keep their beliefs intact, they should be responsible for their actions and accept the repercussions, however costly, of to what their beliefs had led them. Another instance where the thin skull rule has been abused was in the following case. In the case of the Christian Scientist Minelda, there was an accident where the driver was negligent and Minelda suffered a shattered pelvis. However due to her Christian Scientist belief in faith healing only, she did not go to a doctor immediately and because of this her condition worsened to the point where sexual intercourse with her husband and subsequently childbirth would be painful and dangerous.

It is important to note that Minelda did in the end go to the doctor because she in the end disbanded from her religious belief in faith healing and continued to attempt to sue for not only the initial damage to her pelvis, but also for the extra damage incurred by her not seeking medical treatment. Therein lies the abuse of the thin skull rule on two accounts, firstly because the tort-feasor could not have possibly foreseen that Minelda would not go to a doctor when injured, as a reasonable person would, but also because she in the end broke her religious views and still tried to receive compensation for the additional damage.

If she had gone to the doctor right away, her condition would not have worsened, and thus such need for supplementary charges would not have ever occurred. There is no dispute here as to whether negligence occurred or with whether the tort-feasor took his victim as she came. The dispute lies in if the religious view was viable reason that would make her subject to more damage than the norm. As stated before the thin skull principle was intended for physical health issues, not for issues in which “faith healing” dominates traditional medicine, and especially not when traditional medicine was eventually, successfully used.

As such, the plaintiff should not have even had the audacity to try to manipulate the thin skull rule. The defense to this would be that giving up her religious beliefs would be far more costly than the physical damage incurred and that she did act reasonably. However we must refer back to the idea of the reasonable person who tries to mitigate damage and understand that it is unreasonable to allow someone with a particular belief added compensation when someone with another belief in the same situation would not benefit in the same way.

Calibressi notes that calculating “what if any damages accrue to someone who is led to violate his or her conscience on account of injury. The pains of hell surely are costly, but it is not clear that they are cognizable in a court of law” 48. What we need to take from this is that since we cannot quantify the violation of conscience as a punishment we cannot take into account these religious violations when discussing matters of tort in a court of law.

Finally we must look at the notion of a secular state. The state is supposed to see all religions as equal and favor no particular religion. In applying the thin skull rule to religious views the courts will inherently favor some religions that are more burdensome on its followers than others. Calibressi notes that “if the gift we accept is the notion that all religious beliefs should be treated equally, then it would seem to follow that the unlucky victim is the person who properly bears the cost of that decision” 64.

We cannot allow a person to claim added damages due to their own actions even if their actions where forced by the hand of another’s negligence. Especially when the initial negligence and damage caused is not in dispute, but only the additional damage caused by the religious belief is disputed. If we allow religion to be used as a litigation tool its original intent is greatly diminished.

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