The Way, Way Back…to the Courthouse?

By Noah Forrest

 “The Way, Way Back,” out now on DVD and on demand, is a charming coming-of-age story with some compelling legal quagmires that might not be apparent at first blush.

The film follows awkward 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who spends a summer vacationing with his mother (Toni Collette) at her new boyfriend’s beach house.  Duncan does not get along with Trent, his mother’s boyfriend. (Steve Carell, the nicest guy in Hollywood plays a snake of a man with admirable ease).  Trent belittles Duncan, at one point telling the young teenager matter-of-factly that in his estimation, on a scale of one to ten, young Duncan rates a “three.”  Miserable and alone, Duncan gets on a bike and visits a water park, where a free-spirited and kind manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell doing his best impression of Bill Murray in Meatballs), gives the boy a job.

The film is the directorial debut of actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won Academy Awards for writing “The Descendants,” and they imbue the film with heart and humor. And, for this reporter, legal angles.

First, there is the scene when Mr. Carell’s character makes a move towards Duncan as if he was going to strike him; Trent is ultimately held back by the mother and friends.  But what if Trent had hit Duncan and the mother sanctioned it?  Would this be viewed as child abuse (because Trent was not married to Duncan’s mom), or would the law deem this to be part of acceptable parenting?  What if the corporal punishment was okayed by the parent?

Second, Duncan’s mother did not know that he was working at the waterpark. Nobody knew, or much cared, what Duncan did with his time, so long as he wasn’t moping around the house and getting in the way.  Is this kosher?  What happens if Duncan had been injured at the park?  Who is liable in that situation: the park owners for not requiring that Duncan receive his parent’s permission or the parent for being negligent?

Let’s deal with the rough issue of corporal punishment versus abuse first.  The film was shot in Massachusetts, so we will apply Massachusetts law, as this is a situation that is covered by state law.

Abuse, as defined by the Massachusetts legislature, is a bit of a fungible term.  It can include verbal and mental abuse, and it has to be willful and knowing. It almost always has to result in some kind of substantial injury.  In Trent’s case, he was verbally abusive for much of the movie before teetering on the ledge of becoming physically abusive, willfully and knowingly.

But case law does not support the contention that Trent hitting Duncan would constitute abuse.  As this 1999 Massachusetts Supreme Court case illustrates, in which a father is allowed to hit a child with a belt as punishment (with no objection from the mother, who was in the process of divorcing the father), the line between corporal punishment and abuse varies based on the circumstances, the degree of injury to the child, and the consent of a parent.  In this case, the mother permitted her son to spend time with father despite being aware of the dad’s preferred method of punishment.  The court concludes, after deciding that there was no abuse, that the “method of corporal punishment similar to the plaintiff’s could, in different circumstances, rise to a level of severity that would result in the actual infliction of impermissible injuries or, alternatively, warrant a rational inference that it posed a substantial risk that such injuries would result.”  In other words, the outcome is fact-specific.    And if Trent was acting in loco parentis and did not inflict too much bodily harm, then corporal punishment would likely be deemed allowable.

Presumably, if Trent had smacked Duncan just that once and the mother didn’t object, Duncan would not have had much of a chance putting Trent behind bars. If Trent put Duncan in the hospital, however,  Trent might not have seen his summer home again for quite a while.

Now, let’s move on to the issue of Duncan’s employment at the waterpark.

Child labor laws are enforced at both the federal and state level.  The Department of Labor has its own set of standards and each state can apply more rigorous or demanding rules of its own – but can’t apply a lower standard of protection.

Federal law allows minors aged 14 and 15 to work without their parent’s permission in “non-hazardous” jobs.  Some states, like Massachusetts, require work permits for youth employment.  In order to obtain such a permit, a minor must submit an application that includes a parent’s signature.

As several recent cases have shown, Massachusetts has stopped cracking down on children working beyond the maximum hours per week (40 hours during the summer, 18 during the school year). Still, the penalties when the Bay State does penalize violations of child labor laws are pretty steep.

If they were found out, Owen could have faced criminal prosecution and a fine up to $10,000.  A repeat offender could end up with prison time.  Duncan’s a great kid, but I don’t know if Owen liked him that much.

And if something were to happen to Duncan, like death or serious injury, Owen could have been penalized up to $50,000. Considering waterparks are fairly dangerous places, this is not inconceivable.  In fact, according to the Massachusetts child labor laws, youths aged 14 and 15 are not allowed to work in “amusement places” at all.

Seems “The Way, Way Back” could have used a legal consultant. I’m available for your next film, Messrs. Faxon and Rash.  Noah.Forrest@law.nyls.edu.


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