The IdoLawyer: Will Justin Timberlake Get What’s Coming To Him?
Editor’s note: Aside from a few Clash lyrics, your Idolators know nothing about the law. Which is why we’re proud to introduce the IdoLawyer, an anonymous California attorney who will be weighing in on various music-related matters. While her column isn’t intended as legal advice, it is sage advice nontheless, and we’ve asked her to take on a dilemma that’s been bugging us for weeks: Is Justin Timberlake above the law?
One of the most famous songs in opera is Verdi’s “La Donna e Mobile,” which translates, inartfully, to “Woman is fickle.” Verdi got his message across in two minutes; Justin Timberlake, in his video for “What Goes Around … Comes Around,” takes nine and a half. The clip begins with JT stealing Scarlett Johansson away from her man and ends with her death in a car crash, after she cheats on him. Thanks to this deficit of subtext, the video is worth watching exactly once.
But this video raised red flags for your IdolLawyer. If the events of this video were reality, instead of fantasy, Justin could face some serious legal charges.
Let me paint this picture for you, baby:
“Justin” has convinced “Scarlett” to cheat on, and ultimately ditch, her inattentive man. She and Justin proceed to date, we are told, on the regular. But one night at the club, he discovers Scarlett making out in a stairwell with his best friend. He punches the guy out and threatens Scarlett until she runs, teary-eyed, to her car parked outside. She roars off into the manhole-steaming night, and Justin follows, close behind.
Just as he pulls alongside her car, he notices what she doesn’t: A giant flaming car wreck that’s blocking the road. Her car soars, flips, and crash lands. She lies on the road, dead in the Los Angeles dawn. With a look that his acting teacher no doubt told him would convey shock and disgust, JT emerges from his roadster, karmically victorious.
Legally, this video is full of potential liability. Some examples:
Could Justin be sued for stealing Scarlett? Nope. But if she were married, and if the year were 1934, the story might have been different. At that time, California still allowed lawsuits based on “alienation of affection.” These suits were based on the idea that wives belonged to their husbands, so Hubby could demand money from the guy who stole his dame.
Scarlett fakes her own death in a swimming pool to get Justin’s attention. Aside from the fact that it comes out of nowhere, doesn’t the law punish this act? Indeed, yes. Though Justin wasn’t required to rescue the drowning woman, she could still be forced to pay for any injury he incurred trying to save her. Under this “rescue doctrine,” if the victim has created the dangerous situation, she has to pay up when another person attempts, within reason, to save her.
Justin wallops the bejeezus out of his friend. Can he be sued? Of course! Justin could be liable for assault and battery, and his righteous indignation would be no defense. (Catching your spouse cheating may be enough to reduce a murder charge to manslaughter, but that rule doesn’t kick in at these levels of injury.) To escape liability, Justin has three options: (1) He could argue that no one suffered from his outburst, but he clearly punched the guy out; (2) he could argue he was provoked, but provocation only reduces the amount of punitive damages, which is the icing on the cake of regular “compensatory” damages; or (3) he could argue he was acting in self-defense. But defending your ego doesn’t count.
The real show-stopper here, though, is the car chase, which ends in Scarlett’s demise. In California, Justin could face a raft of criminal charges for this non-trivial pursuit. It doesn’t matter that his car didn’t hit anybody or anything. What matters is Justin’s mental state during that car chase.
· If Justin was acting “recklessly” (say, by speeding on dark streets), and this action caused the accident, he could face up to six months in jail.
· But if he was acting with “gross negligence,” he could be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Gross negligence means you’re more than irresponsible but less than evil. For example: Fixing your buddy’s bike with a part that turned out to be faulty is negligent, whereas fixing your buddy’s bike with a part you knew in advance would break is grossly negligent.
· Even if he wasn’t grossly negligent, Justin could still be charged with misdemeanor manslaughter for killing someone while committing an unlawful act–in this case, reckless driving. This crime that has been recommended but not charged in Brandy’s car accident case.
· If Justin was driving with a “conscious disregard for human life,” the jury would be allowed to impute malicious intent to him and convict him of murder, off the dance floor. For these big charges, it wouldn’t matter if Scarlett were partially responsible for her own demise.
Justin could try to argue he was acting in “defense of a third person,” namely Scarlett, by attempting to catch up with her. But there’s no proof here that he thought she was going to harm herself. In fact, he seemed to be following her just so he could continue berating her.
Thanks to Justin’s fledgling acting abilities, we can’t be sure just what he was thinking getting into his car to chase her down. But with the law as it is, he has some ‘splainin to do. After he crouches over her cold, dead body, he should think twice and take his own advice from an earlier album: Don’t be so quick to walk away.