Reading time: 6 minutes
Welcome to the Week 2 recap of Yada Yada Law School, an online lecture series about the law and the show Seinfeld. Last week, we learned about property law, specifically discussing the role of a community’s “custom” in legal disputes of property. I’m Pete-the-Intern, and this week, my virtual classmates and I were able to hear from Professor Derek T. Muller of Iowa Law School on the topic of Evidence.
The Magical Loogie
Professor Muller broke his lecture down by taking a look into a few different episodes of Seinfeld to highlight some key Federal Rules of Evidence. The first Seinfeld scenario comes from the first-hand account given by Kramer and Newman of an incredibly fateful day at the ballpark on June 10, 1987. In their story, they explain that on their way out of the stadium, Newman taunts Mets’ first baseman, Keith Hernandez who, in response, hurls a powerful loogie into the forehead of Kramer. Ricocheting off Kramer’s forehead, the loogie then travels towards Newman, striking him in three different places and evoking severe emotional trauma. In their words, the day had been “ruined.”
As Jerry and Elaine hear this story, it is clear that Elaine is captivated by the showmanship of Newman in his account and the overall drama of the story. Jerry, however, is far from sold. In a very Johnny Cochran manner, he then takes the floor to completely debunk the plausibility of Kramer and Newman’s tale. When Jerry is done, even Newman cannot help but feel uncertain of the actual truth. Later that day, the alleged attacker, Hernandez, is able to give his account of the story where he explains that, as Jerry argued, it was not him that spit the loogie but rather a separate Mets player from behind.
This scenario, according to Professor Muller, provides a great example of why we have rules of evidence in the first place. The Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 102 explains that:
“These rules should be construed so as to administer every proceeding fairly, eliminate unjustifiable expense and delay, and promote the development of evidence law, to the end of ascertaining the truth and securing a just determination.”
Essentially, as both sides of a dispute, such as those in the loogie fiasco of Season 3, need to establish their own narratives with evidence, we depend on these rules of evidence to establish consistency and fairness regarding how evidence is administered to the jury. These rules control what evidence is allowed into court and how it is introduced.
Is the Rye Relevant?
Another Seinfeld scenario used by Professor Muller came from the highly controversial final episode, where the crew is prosecuted under Massachusetts’ “Good Samaritan Law.” For those unfamiliar with the ending of Seinfeld, the final episode includes the arrest of the show’s main characters after they witness a carjacking, all while filming the incident and joking about the victim’s weight. As they soon find out, Massachusetts had recently enacted the “Good Samaritan Law,” making it a crime to witness someone be harmed without making a reasonable effort to help.
Fun Fact: Texas has a rare form of Good Samaritan Law which “protects citizens in the event that they provide emergency medical assistance. This law is meant to shield people acting in good faith and in their best efforts from civil liability and to protect the public by creating an incentive for others to help in a time of emergency.” Examples of finding exemption under a good samaritan law would include situations such as accidentally injuring someone while administering CPR or breaking a windshield to rescue a child in a hot car. (HQ Legal Resources)
For committing this crime, they are then arrested and brought to trial. Like most other legal interactions in the show, this episode features my favorite character of the series and new role model, Jackie Chiles, Attorney at Law. At trial, the prosecution calls to the stand Mabel Choate, an elderly woman whom Jerry mugged for a $6 loaf of marbled rye earlier on in the show.
To this, Jackie Chiles immediately erupts out of his seat, arguing that this witness was not present at the scene of the crime and therefore cannot offer relevant testimony. The prosecution responds by saying that Mrs. Choate’s testimony is going to prove to the jury that what happened in Massachusetts was not simply an isolated err in judgment, but rather part of a longer trend of poor citizenship. The judge overrules Chiles’ objection and allows the testimony.
Professor Muller uses this issue to introduce two different rules of evidence. First, Rule 401, which is used as the test for what is relevant. Rule 401 states that Evidence is relevant if:
- it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and
- the fact is of consequence in determining the action.
As Muller explains, Jerry’s actions surely would make the fact in question at trial more probable, as it paints him as acting like a lawless citizen in the recent past. While Mrs. Choate’s testimony would surely be admissible under 401 alone, Professor Muller points out another rule that may be problematic to the judge’s decision.
Rule 404 (B) (1) :
“Evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.”
According to 404, Professor Muller believes that Mrs. Choate should never have been able to testify against Jerry and the gang. While previous incidents are sometimes allowed in court, this incident was only being used to harm the perceived character of Jerry, a tactic protected by 404.
While watching the designated episodes for this week, I was surprised to see just how many legitimately law-related scenes are included in Seinfeld. Personally, I think that the repetitive back and forth between Kramer and Jackie Chiles while discussing their newest “slip and fall” type lawsuits are among the funniest scenes in the show. For example, when Kramer scours himself with smuggled coffee in the 7th season and in return, earns a lifetime supply of free coffee – both hilarious and legally inspiring.
Thank you for checking in on Week 2 of Yada Yada Law School! If you would like to watch the full lecture, you can do so for free here. Stop by next week for Week 3’s recap on what should be an interesting take on Criminal Procedure!