Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Welcome to the 5th weekly recap of Yada Yada Law School, a lecture series about law topics taught from a show about nothing. In this week’s lecture, the class heard from Associate Professor David Simon at George Washington University Law School on the topic of Torts!
First lesson, we are not discussing tortes, which are a dessert. While tort law is certainly not sweet and almost never enjoyable, it does involve deserts. Today we will look at actions that implicate types of moral deserts, or what people deserve based on their actions.
3 Major Types of Torts
Intentional Tort – This involves a deliberate action against a person or property that causes damage. In this type of tort, the offender or tortfeasor is liable for their intentional actions.
- Content Pilot example – Inside Starbucks, Sheila sips on her coffee and decides it is much too hot for her liking. In protest, she removes the lid to her hot coffee and purposely hurls it over the counter at the barista. This type of tort is called battery and in this instance leaves a battered (and coffee-covered) barista. Pretty straight forward.
Accidental (Negligence) – This type of tort consists of an accident that in someway causes damage to a person or property. If it is decided that whoever committed the accident breached the duties of a reasonable person, they will be found liable to the damages created by their accident.
- This typically consists of a lot of car accidents and “slip and fall” type cases.
Strict Liability – In tort law, strict liability exists when a defendant should be held liable for committing an action that leads to damage, regardless of what his/her intent or mental state was when committing the action. This is sort of a liability safety net for victims when an offender is not negligent, does not harm the victim intentionally, yet somehow causes damage. Most Strict Liability scenarios involve defective products or the owning of inherently dangerous objects.
Torts in Seinfeld
Now that we have a basic understanding of the main areas of tort law, let’s jump into some examples that can be seen in Seinfeld. For those of you who have not seen the show, just assume that at least half of the characters on the show pretty consistently act in a way that the court would call “unreasonable.” That being said, it should be easy to see how tort law will be fairly relevant.
Kramer v. Dog (1993)
To illustrate negligence, Professor Simon looks to episode 67 of Seinfeld, where Kramer self-installs an A/C unit in the window of Jerry’s 5th-floor apartment. Suddenly, the unit begins to wiggle and despite Kramer desperately trying to save the unit by grabbing the power wire, it falls to the ground, crushing a dog. Yikes.
Obviously, because Kramer did a poor job at installing the A/C unit which fell to the ground, he should be liable, correct? Well, yes. But what would happen if Kramer, Jerry, and Elaine, the only people present to watch the unit fall, all denied that Kramer was in fact negligent?
In the 1863 case of Byrne v. Boadle, almost this exact scenario was tried in court. In this case, not an A/C unit, but a barrel of flour mysteriously fell from a second-story loft and struck the plaintiff on the head. While two people witnessed the injury, they were unable to testify as to how the barrel fell from the loft in the first place.
Dealing with a new issue in negligence law, the court reasoned that “A barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without at least some negligence, and to say that a plaintiff who is injured by it must call witnesses from the warehouse to prove negligence seems to me preposterous,” Bryne v. Boadle (1863). This ruling introduced the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur, which essentially means that in some scenarios, the outcome of the event itself is sufficient evidence to prove negligence.
To return to Kramer’s scenario, if no one in the apartment chose to testify as to why the A/C unit fell from the window, the court would likely apply the Res Ipsa Loquitur. As in Bryne, they would likely conclude that because A/C units do not typically fall from the sky without reason, Kramer must have been somewhat negligent.
To apply what we’ve learned today, I’ll close by adapting a quote from Dwight Schrute of my favorite sitcom, The Office: “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an unreasonable person do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing.” Words to live by.
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!