Duty of care lessons learned during my incendiary youth | Ken Hill

By ​​​​​​​Ken Hill

Law360 Canada (December 7, 2022, 10:55 AM EST) --
Ken Hill
I often hear that modern parents worry about the effect that screens and video games might be having on their children.

Time spent virtually shooting and blowing up enemies is probably not going to do kids much good, but it is at least safer than some of the hair-raising stunts my friends and I used to get up to in the middle years of the 20th century. I suspect that parents today keep their charges under tighter surveillance, and that, if the little darlings happen to cause some injury or damage, a different standard of care might be applied by the courts in considering the vicarious liability of parents.

As I look back on it now, we were pretty creative, taking what was at hand and putting common items to uses that their creators, and our parents, never dreamt of. Our creativity was a source of fun, often inflected with more than a touch of danger and excitement. We were lucky our parents thought of us as responsible types (the word “nerd” not having been invented yet) not requiring close supervision. If they only knew!

We rarely had access to firecrackers, so when we had a few strings of them — the odd block-buster, but mainly strings of one or two-inch crackers — we wanted to get the biggest possible bang for our buck (more like a dime in those days). So, we would think up ways to get more than a boom and a puff of smoke out of each precious ignition. Putting a firecracker under an object like an empty can was okay — usually causing the can to give a satisfying jump and clatter to the pavement. When we grew bored with that, we came up with the idea of inserting a firecracker into a clump of mud and tossing it as high as we could once the fuse was sputtering. Mud went flying in in all directions from our improvised hand grenades. As responsible 11-year-olds, we were allowed to have matches and “punk,” and our parents seemed to have no problem with leaving us alone to carry out our experiments in the back yard or alley.

Around the same time, my friend Johnny had found out what gunpowder was made of, so we set about acquiring the ingredients. It was possible in those days to buy sulphur and saltpeter in the grocery store, using one’s hard-earned allowance. Back in Johnny’s basement, we budding scientists busied ourselves concocting mixtures at random. Thankfully, we did not understand the need to compress the material in order to get an explosion. The most we were able to accomplish was a sputtering chemical fire spewing copious back smoke. Disappointed, we went back to playing with our Warriors of the World figurines and watching Quick Draw McGraw cartoons.

My brothers and friends and I had a long walk to elementary school, so long in fact that the school board distributed two city bus tickets to each of us every school day, but it was much more fun to walk and to save those tickets for trips downtown on the weekend or summer holidays. The back alleys were the most interesting routes for our twice-daily walks. You never knew what you might find around the garbage bins, especially behind the shopping plaza.

The big bin behind Safeway often had used fluorescent tubes, which were perfect for fencing practice. Surprisingly I don’t remember anyone getting cut in those sword fights, but I shudder to think about what we might have been inhaling when the tubes shattered. The bin behind the dentist’s office sometimes had used hypodermic syringes, which we geniuses adapted into entertaining water squirters. It was all fun and games, as they say, until some indiscreet goof got caught with a hypo at recess, and we were hauled down to the principal’s office. I remember salvaging some dignity by telling the principal that I threw my syringe out once I realized how foolish it was to play with it. Not entirely honest, and not a great strategy, but in hindsight, I’m kind of proud that I was at least able to think on my feet in a tight spot.

Our experimentation with explosives finally met with success when I was about 13. I have no recollection where we got the idea, but my cousin Bill and I put together an exploding hardware assemblage. I won’t give too many details here in case anyone should want to try this trick — which was in fact very cool! It involved the heads of several wooden matches and a few nuts and bolts.

These were assembled into a simple device which, when it struck the pavement after being hurled high into the air over the street, would explode with a loud bang and enough force to send a bolt high into the air. At the time we thought this was such a blast that we would do it all the time, but in retrospect I’m glad we only did it a once or twice, because sooner or later the bolt might have found its way into an eye, or skull.

This summary makes me sound like a little pyromaniac, but these events were spread out over several years, and we also invented numerous other games and pastimes, most of which did not involve chemical weapons. Some might argue that being left alone by the adults and having a lot of time and freedom prepared us for life, in contrast to today’s helicopter parenting. I don’t know, maybe so, but I also think we were lucky to get out of it with our eyes intact and all of our fingers, and equally important, that we didn’t maim anyone else.

Which brings me back to the standard of care imposed on parents or other caregivers, that being the community standard generally expected of a reasonably prudent parent “at the time.” It seems that the current prevailing opinion is that in a world widely perceived to be dangerous, children should not be roving about on their own, let alone with access to dangerous materials.

Consequently, today’s parents may be held to a higher standard of surveillance than were our parents. On top of that, the cyber-world that today’s kids inhabit may pose little or no physical risks, but it opens a whole new range of potential harms and concomitant liability. There is infinite potential for mischief in the metaverse.

Ken Hill is happily retired from just about 40 years of litigation practice in Newmarket, Ont.

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