19 July 2013

Legal Considerations in Ghost Hunting

Last Saturday I did a presentation for the Olympia Paranormal Research Group on the legalities of ghost hunting.  I was tempted to subtitle the presentation "How Not to Get Sued - Probably."  You see, there aren't really any laws that are specifically directed at ghost hunting.  I don't think lawmakers ever really think about it.  As a result, most of the legal considerations of ghost hunting revolve around civil liability (tort law) and protecting yourself from that liability.  It's all about how not to get sued. 

*First a disclaimer.  The following is just food for thought, it is not intended to be legal advice.  If you need legal advice I recommend you consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.  While I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer.  What you do with this information is up to you.

Further, the following information in not comprehensive.  It is intended to make you aware of the most common legal issues that can come up in paranormal investigating.  Unfortunately, the potential for legal snags in a litigious world is almost infinite while my desire to dwell on it is not.*

Don’t do it.  Seriously. Trespassing is a criminal offense - you can be arrested and/or fined.
It is imperative that you get permission from a property owner before you do an investigation.  I recommend always getting permission in writing (make this part of your general paperwork). 
Always make sure that all of your investigators and the property owner sign a liability waiver.  Liability waivers basically say that if anyone gets hurt or anything gets damaged, the person injured promises not to sue you for damages.  You need this so that if you accidental break the homeowner's ming vase, you wont get sued for millions of dollars.  The homeowner needs it so that if one of your investigators trips over the coffee table and breaks a leg, the homeowner wont get sued.  Everybody wins. 

Of course, just because you've got signed waivers doesn't mean folks can't sue you - it just changes how likely they are to win.  You see, most waivers protect you against negligence, but not recklessness.  That means if you're startled by a noise and accidentally put a camera through someone's plasma screen you're probably ok.  However, if you're juggling family heirlooms and accidentally drop one, you're toast.  I look at it as negligence waivers protecting you from unhappy accidents outside of your control, but not deliberate idiocy or douchbaggery [yes, that's a technical term ;)].

Referrals are rather sticky when it comes to ghost hunting.  If someone spends money on something because “you told them they had to” and they don’t like the results, they can sue you.  If you tell someone they need to hire a plumber or electrician and the person the client hires is bad, they can potentially sue you (though not for much - probably).  If you really think they need a service (like having their wiring checked) make sure you just say something like “consult a licensed and bonded electrician” rather than giving a personal referral (e.g., call my friend Bob, he’ll fix you up) - that can be construed as slightly extortionate if it turns out the referral was unwarranted because you had the client at a disadvantage when you gave the referral (they were scared, confused, etc.).  

Equally sticky, though less likely to end in a law suit, are referrals for cleansings.  At lot of times you'll come across haunted locations that a good energetic cleansing can pretty much fix.  Some folks who do energetic cleansings charge fees, some only charge for their expenses, and others will come out of good will alone.  If you refer a client to someone who charges for the cleansing and the client ends up feeling taken advantage of, you could be in legal hot water.  More likely though, is to have the person doing the cleansing offend the client in some way.  Most cleansings have religious overtones (or are straight out religious rites) and many involve practices that can make some people nervous.  Be aware of what kinds of things cleansers do and refer accordingly.  E.g. Don't refer the evangelical Christian client to a Voudou priestess - the priestess can certainly get the job done, but will almost certainly bring the client to hysterics.  I recommend getting a list of several people of different backgrounds so you can refer people more selectively.  And, of course, if a client is of a particular faith (and you know it at the time) refer them to their own religious leaders first, if appropriate.

Lawsuits are almost always the result of a relationship gone bad.  The easiest way to avoid getting sued (even if you do something wrong) is to cultivate a positive relationship with the client.  Be honest with them and make them feel that you're on their side.  Communicate clearly what you will do during an investigation before you do it.  Make sure the client understands - really understands - what you will do.  I like to check someone's understanding by having them sum up what they think I'm going to do - you'd be amazed the misunderstandings you can catch this way.  Make sure the client understands what kind of evidence you expect, and what DOES NOT constitute evidence.  If you can tell a client is misunderstanding you, you have a duty to make sure they get it before you investigate.

As an aside, I also recommend asking if the client watches any ghost hunting reality shows.  You can get a pretty clear snapshot of what they think you're going to do if you know where their ideas are coming from.

Clients with strong religious beliefs present their own special challenges. Be aware (if you can) of your client’s religion as early in the process as possible.  Some religions have very firm stances on the paranormal and can be very easily offended.  This goes back to making sure the client understands what you intend to do, so if they have objections they can say so before you start investigating.  A little respect goes a long way, even if you think your client's religion is wackdoodle (another technical term).

Sadly, you almost certainly will run into crazy people if you make a habit of chasing the paranormal.  Some clients are very lonely and will call you in just to get attention; some clients are certifiable.  Do you best to figure of if the client is buggers before you investigate.  Be EXTREMELY cautious with crazy people.  You never really know what they're going to do.  NEVER, ever, tell them they need to get professional help.  You can ask if they’ve considered it or mention "that one person you know who in a similar situation found psychiatric assistance valuable," but do not do anything that could be construed as telling the client they’re nuts - apart from almost certainly pissing them off, it’s potentially libelous.

The other really tricky thing with crazy people is that they're often haunted.  Oh yes, you can be both cracked and haunted.  When someone has mental difficulties it can actually make them more vulnerable to negative entities, so you will often find them hanging around.  Situations like that, however, are beyond the scope of a ghost hunting group.  Honestly, this is the point where you should really start backing away slowly, making no sudden moves.  There are spiritual healers and psychotherapists who are trained to deal with this kind of weirdness.  Unless you're one of them, changes are you'll be way out of your depth with someone like this.
Remember, this is all just food for thought.  Consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction if you need legal advice.

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