When Does The First Amendment Protect A Person From Liability?

Most religions have rules. Are you supposed to work on the Sabbath? Probably not, but some folks take this rule far more seriously than others. Let’s say John Doe is Jewish and believes strongly that he should not work on the Sabbath. The faucet in front of his property begins to leak on a cold winter day. The water from the faucet turns into ice, making the sidewalk much more slippery overnight.

John becomes aware of the problem the next day — but that day is his Sabbath. He chooses to do nothing because he feels God will judge him harshly should he work to fix the leaky faucet. It can wait one day, right? Unfortunately, no. Pedestrian Jame Smith comes along, slips, falls, and cracks her head open on the pavement. She suffers from traumatic brain injury. Her wealthy family retains a great lawyer, who sends his investigators to learn all they can from the scene of the incident.

Those investigators quickly learn that John Doe knew about the leaky faucet but chose to do nothing. The great lawyer contends that John Doe is solely liable for the slip and fall because his negligence in fixing a known maintenance issue on his property caused the accident. He seeks punitive damages to punish John Doe for this atrocity.

John Doe works hard when his god allows him to work, though, and hires a great lawyer of his own. His lawyer tells the judge that the case should be dismissed on the grounds of his client’s first amendment right to religious freedom. Jane Smith’s lawyer counters, saying that the case should move forward because Doe could have mitigated the fallout from the faucet by spreading salt or making a sign to warn pedestrians of the danger. Doe’s lawyer snipes back that these actions also constitute “work” under his client’s religious beliefs.

The case could go either way because religious freedom boundaries have yet to be determined in court. Ask your lawyer for details if you believe your religious freedom preempts you from liability.

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