Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Howdy! Welcome back to my weekly recap of Yada Yada Law School, a lecture series on the law, taught from the scenarios in 90’s sitcom Seinfeld. In this week’s class, we are guided by Professor César F. Rosado Marzá of the University of Iowa College of Law into the dreaded depths of Contract law.
I say that the topic of Contract Law is dreaded because it is typically taught from cases with boring fact patterns and seeks to answer the same questions over and over again. Fortunately for us, we get to hear about it through Seinfeld, which is neither boring nor redundant. So if you want to learn about the law, just stream an unhealthy amount of Seinfeld instead of studying nasty old casebooks written in the 1800s – it’s working for me! (At least until I get to UT Law this fall.)
What exactly is a contract?
For today’s agenda, we are going to define what a contract is, and then use this definition to analyze a few Seinfeld scenarios where a contract may or may not be present.
According to Professor Marzá, a contract is a legally binding agreement. We can consider agreements to be legally enforceable only when…
- They are agreed upon freely by the parties involved, and
- This can be clearly expressed or implied
- Involve some sort of exchange (consideration)
A Very Puffy Shirt
For the first scenario, Professor Marzá directs us to episode 5 of season 2 where Jerry is ‘contractually obligated’ to wear a horribly ‘Puffy Shirt’ on television. For context, Jerry and Elaine were out to dinner with Kramer and his then-girlfriend Leslie, nicknamed “the low talker” for her inability to speak at a comprehensible volume.
During the dinner, Leslie quietly offers Jerry one of her newly designed shirts if he wears it on his next TV appearance. In response to Leslie’s murmuring, Jerry takes a polite guess and responds with a large smile and a “Sure, of course!” The next day, Kramer delivers a shirt to Jerry that looks like it was stolen off the set of a low-budget pirate movie. Kramer then demands that Jerry wear the shirt on television.
What do you think? Would a court enforce this agreement?
Using Professor Marzá’s definition, most likely! Let’s walk through our elements to determine why. It’s easy to see that we have a basic trade-off in this agreement. Jerry gets a free shirt if he agrees to go onto TV while wearing the shirt. Element #2 (the exchange factor) is satisfied.
Element #1 (the agreement) is a bit trickier. Professor Marzá argues that because Jerry ‘plays along’ with the idea of the agreement by trying on the shirt and bringing it to the TV studio before protesting the agreement, he has essentially implied the existence of such an agreed-upon contract.
The Not-So-Reserved Car Rental
In the episode where Jerry’s car is stolen, an interesting teaching point arises when Jerry attempts to reserve a rental car. When he arrives to pick up his specifically desired “mid-sized” car, he is surprised to hear that the rental garage had actually “run out” of the car Jerry reserved. This prompts a funny dialogue between Jerry and the customer service agent as to what the term “reserved” actually means and also raises an interesting hypothetical. By reserving a car online, did Jerry form an enforceable agreement with the rental garage?
Probably not! When we look at element #1 (the agreement), it seems pretty clear from watching the scene that both the customer service agent and Jerry recognize that a reservation had been placed. Jerry arrives and announces his reservation and then the agent finds the reservation on her computer. Here we see a clear expression from both parties that an agreement in the form of a reservation had been made regarding a mid-sized car. Element #1 is satisfied.
Passing element #2 (the exchange) will be much more difficult for Jerry and would depend on whether Jerry had to pay for this reservation. If Jerry was not forced to pay some sort of deposit when reserving the car, then no contract was ever made! With no deposit, this reservation would be no more than a gift promise, which courts do not enforce. However, if Jerry had paid some sort of fee to reserve the car, by not providing a mid-sized car for Jerry, the rental garage would be in breach of its end of the contract.
Practical Application: The next time someone tells you they are going to gift you something in the future, go ahead and rework the terms to include you giving them a dollar now. Once you give them the dollar, you have created an enforceable contract!
Thanks so much for tuning in this week. If you would like to watch this week’s lecture for free, you can do so here!