Academy Award-Winning Negligence

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Academy Awards Oscar Envelope

I don’t watch the Academy Awards. I never have; they hold absolutely no interest for me. Nevertheless, even as a party both disinterested and uninterested, I feel that the gaffe at the Oscars was more than unfortunate. It was disgraceful.

In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past week, here’s what happened: Best Picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the envelope containing the name of the winning film. Beatty opened the envelope and a look of confusion crossed his face. Dunaway took both the envelope and control of the situation, announcing La La Land (the favorite to win) as Best Picture.

The winners took the stage, followed by a moment of chaos when the announcement came that the wrong film had been declared the winner. The Best Picture for 2017 was, in fact, Moonlight. The producers of La La Land graciously ceded the stage and things proceeded as smoothly as possible at that point.

So what happened? Apparently, Beatty had been handed the Best Actress envelope by mistake. The card inside it read, “Emma Stone, La La Land.” This is not how a Best Picture announcement should read hence Beatty was flummoxed. Dunaway was more forceful in addressing the situation but, sadly, incorrect. And the resulting situation was not good for anyone.

Imagine the producers of La La Land. They had been handed the highest honor of the night only to have it snatched away. They didn’t just lose, they were sent on a roller-coaster ride from elation to dejection. Despite all their other accolades, that’s got to hurt.

And what about the producers of Moonlight? They must be happy, right? Certainly, they must be ecstatic about their win but this error has done them a disservice by taking the spotlight off of their accomplishment. The headlines Monday morning didn’t say “Oscar Upset,” they said “Oscar Goof.”

This faux pas also harms PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers), the accounting firm engaged specifically to ensure that such things don’t happen. This is a very public black eye on the company’s reputation that it will be living down for a long time.

My attitude on this incident is much more unforgiving than when the same thing happened to Steve Harvey at last year’s Miss Universe pageant. (You may recall that the Family Feud host initially announced that Miss Colombia was the winner rather than the actual winner, Miss Philippines.) Harvey appears to have made an honest mistake; what happened at the Academy Awards was the result of negligence.

Here’s how the Oscar envelopes are handled: only two PwC accountants know the names of the winners, which are placed in two sets of sealed envelopes; the accountants also memorize the names. The envelopes are placed in briefcases and taken separately to the theater where the awards are to be presented. The accountants stand at opposite sides of the stage and hand the envelopes to the presenters as the award categories are announced. One of the accountants, Brian Cullinan, handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. (Emma Stone had her Best Actress envelope, which must have come from the pile of the other accountant, Martha Ruiz.)

This sounds like a simple case of “you had one job” – how hard is it to read what’s written on an envelope before handing it to Warren Beatty? – so where does negligence enter into it?

Well, it seems that Cullinan was tweeting instead of paying attention. Literally three minutes earlier, he excitedly posted a photo of Emma Stone backstage (since deleted but already saved online). Was he merely not paying attention and absentmindedly drew the Best Actress envelope? Was he star struck and going “OMG OMG OMG Emma Stone” made him pull his copy of her envelope? We may never know but one thing is certain: he didn’t have his head in the game and that makes it negligence.

Jewish law takes negligence very seriously. There are four types of property guardians. You could borrow my car. You could rent my car. I could pay you to watch my car. You could watch my car as a favor. Depending on the type of guardian one is, he might be liable for different types of damage, such as theft, loss, or wear and tear. The shoeil, a borrower, is responsible for all types of damage because the transaction is completely for his benefit – he gets to use the object at no cost. The shomer chinam, an unpaid watchman, has the least liability because this transaction does him virtually no benefit – he’s watching an object as a favor, for no pay. If an object is lost or damaged, the shomer chinam is not responsible. Nevertheless, even a shomer chinam is responsible for damage resulting from negligence because negligence is inexcusable.

We all make mistakes. That’s part of being human. Mistakes can be big or small: someone might order their kung pao chicken too spicy, or they might marry someone who everyone else can tell is wrong for them. People will make mistakes on the job. Drivers will get into car accidents. Doctors will even lose patients who might have been saved. Not every error is the result of negligence. But if you’re tweeting while driving (or performing surgery), insurance companies and the courts are likely to have a very different opinion on your actions!

I’m not suggesting that Cullinan be dismissed for his error, nor that PwC no longer be engaged for such services (though the New York Daily News did start their article on Cullinan with a snarky, “Don’t let this guy do your taxes”). Rather, I’m suggesting that we all take a lesson from this incident. Each and every one of us is going to make mistakes. Not only should we be forgiving of others’ errors, we should learn to allow ourselves normal human imperfections. But we cannot allow that to become carte blanche for carelessness. Whether it’s handing Warren Beatty an envelope or making sure that something we’re about to eat meets proper standards for kosher food, everyone is held responsible for acts of negligence. Tweet Emma Stone on your own time and make sure your head stays in the game.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.