- Defense

Abuse and the Eggshell Skull Rule

It suddenly occurred to me, having written “a difference between a victim and a survivor”, that there is subjectivity out there regarding who can legitimately claim they have been abused. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have just learned about the eggshell skull rule.

It’s worth knowing about. This is a technical description of the Eggshell Skull Rule:

“Doctrine that makes a defendant liable for the plaintiff’s unforeseeable and uncommon reactions to the defendant’s negligent or intentional tort [civil wrong]. If the defendant commits a tort against the plaintiff without a complete defense, the defendant becomes liable for any injury that is magnified by the plaintiff’s peculiar characteristics.”[1]

A simpler explanation is this:

“The rule states that, in a tort case, the unexpected frailty of the injured person is not a valid defense to the seriousness of any injury caused to them.”[2]

In the commonest language, the eggshell skull rule dictates that if a person is struck on the head by a forcefully inflicted feather and suffers injury, because their skull is made of eggshell, the blame is entirely laid at the feather wielding person’s feet. Scary isn’t it?

If we hurt someone, whether we meant it or not, and they suffer an unforeseeable and especially an uncommon injury, we are liable.

This rule is an accepted principle under common law. This law is the kind that is practised in courts where a person can be sued for damages. It is not the kind of court that sends you to prison.

What does this have to do with abuse? A lot, actually.

It means we cannot tell a person that there was insufficient force or reason for them to claim abuse. It means that abuse is now not so much defined by the act done against the person, but by the injuries they sustained.

They may be particularly vulnerable person, and the damage done would not have caused a more resilient person to suffer such damage.

The good thing about this principle of law is that it protects the most vulnerable people. The good news for the victim or survivor of abuse is they don’t need to prove the level of abuse was unacceptable. They have the proof in their being.

The way I understand it, if a person has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they didn’t have it beforehand, and one single event triggered it, there, in that event, is the (potential) tort – the civil wrong. And this rule probably applies well beyond this specific example. (Not being a lawyer myself, I write this simply to convey the existence of the rule.)

What can be said is we need to be very careful what we call a false allegation from a true allegation.

There is a notional case of the woman who on separate occasions seems to talk up a sexual encounter, on the one hand, and claims to be sexually assaulted, on the other. Some people would say it is a false allegation, because she talked about it in brash terms. Perhaps this was part of some bizarre (although not uncommon) coping mechanism. It may not seem right. Later, as she reflects, she recognises the mental and emotional toll. She is depressed, despairing, unable to function. She perhaps is diagnosed with PTSD. We may feel sorry for the man, for the way that she spoke initially. But it doesn’t change the fact that the damage is done. This is just one theoretical example. I know how much discussion this example could generate, but my prayer is that we would simply reflect on this rule, and its unequivocal power for vulnerable people.

I appreciate there are a wide range of views on this topic.

I too have strong views, and they change somewhat when I’m exposed to new information. I am thankful for the eggshell skull rule, because it affords protection for those who have been inadvertently or deliberately injured.

It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do. What matters is the effect. This rule is designed to make us think deeply about how we interact with other people.

It is designed to motivate us to care for people, because what better motivation in there than to protect oneself?

You might call the law an ass, but it is still the law, and it is only wisdom to abide.

[1] Source: Cornell Law School

[2] Source: Wikipedia.