People who encounter unfortunate incidents often wonder if they have grounds to file suit against whomever they perceive as responsible for their situation. This is understandable, given the prominence of litigation in our culture and the many legends of overnight riches that have found their way into our public discourse.
Actual litigation, on the other hand, is a far more complex process than simply announcing someone is liable and arriving to collect. There are numerous elements that must be in place before a plaintiff can make a successful case for damages against a defendant. Those elements are based on rules of evidence, contract law, the concept of negligence, and the concept of damages. All of those things must align properly before a plaintiff even has a case, much less a chance of prevailing in court.
In the case of the attacking jellyfish, first, we must examine who has a duty of care.
The Owners of the Beach
Before legal action can commence, a plaintiff must identify a defendant. In the case of a public beach, it must be ascertained who, if anyone, actually owns or controls the beach and the coastline. There are numerous potential answers to this question, one of which is “nobody.” In an unincorporated area, for example, or a formerly owned private plot along a coastline, it is possible nobody owns or controls a particular stretch of coastal property. In that event, the only potential defendant is the jellyfish.
If a municipality or county government owns or controls the beach, the prospects for a successful lawsuit brighten somewhat, but are far from guaranteed.
If the state owns the beach or it is somehow federal property, meaning it belongs to the government of the United States, things become fairly complex. By and large, governments are sovereign authorities and are not subject to legal action brought by an individual citizen unless they consent to liability by operation of law. For example, if a police officer causes damage to your property in the normal course of their duties, the police officer himself or herself cannot be sued or held legally responsible. Neither can the city, county, or state, because the government doesn’t allow itself to be sued in those circumstances. You’ll find the same is true for judges and other government officials. They can’t be sued for doing their job, even if their actions damage an individual.
This is doubly true at the federal level. The government of the United States has criteria under which it consents to liability in civil matters. In all other cases, the federal courts will dismiss any suit brought against the federal government on the grounds a sovereign government is not subordinate to an authority it granted in the first place. One can argue the federal government isn’t strictly a sovereign entity, but that’s beyond the scope of the jellyfish case.
If a defendant can somehow be identified and it can be established the defendant had a duty of care with respect to the location where the injury occurred, then the plaintiff has overcome the first major hurdle. The next step is to determine if the defendant was negligent.
A duty of care is a complex thing. It means that if a person or entity is in control of the beach, they must see to the safety and welfare of anyone on that beach. For most intents and purposes, this means posting appropriate warnings, hiring lifeguards and police, making sure there are no hazards left accessible to the public, testing the water, keeping the beach clean, and so on.
In the case of the jellyfish, the plaintiff would have to establish the defendant had a duty of care, had some reasonable method of preventing jellyfish attacks, was aware of the risk of someone being stung, and either mistakenly or deliberately failed to take action necessary to protect the plaintiff. The defense, naturally, will seize on the weakest part of that chain, which is the “reasonable method of preventing jellyfish attacks.” They would likely invite the plaintiff to provide some evidence there is such a method and then refute that evidence by claiming it isn’t reasonable to expect the defendant to provide it.
In order to collect anything as a result of prevailing in a lawsuit, the plaintiff must demonstrate they were harmed in some way. This harm is referred to in litigation as “damages” and must be quantified in a manner that allows a court of law to enter a judgment against the defendant that can be satisfied in some manner.
While damages are not always expressed in money terms, in almost every case, a judgment will be for some dollar amount. Damages can be compensatory, meaning they are awarded to satisfy some cost incurred by the plaintiff. They can also be punitive, meaning they are awarded to discourage further torts on the part of the plaintiff.
In the case of a jellyfish sting, absent some overwhelming mitigating circumstance, the damages would be minimal, requiring immediate medical attention only. In a vanishingly small number of cases, jellyfish stings can be dangerous or even life-threatening, but would still be treatable either at the scene or after one or two visits to a hospital.
Absent a fatality, the prospect of a jellyfish sting case becoming some kind of lottery-magnitude windfall for a plaintiff is so remote as to be virtually non-existent. Naturally, wrongful death cases are grounds for much larger rewards than wrongful visits to the emergency room, but such cases would be easier to prosecute in the first place.
As with any legal matter, the best option is to consult with a qualified attorney to explore the legal options. From a practical standpoint, the best alternative to an expensive and potentially long, drawn-out, and expensive lawsuit is to make a claim against your homeowner’s policy or health insurance, have the sting treated, and enjoy the rest of your day.
The question “can I sue?” can almost always be answered “yes.” The question of “will I win?” on the other hand, is a little more complicated. Spending several thousand dollars in legal fees to win the cost of twenty minutes treatment by an ambulance crew is probably not the most effective approach.