August 2015 Bar Bulletin
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August 2015 Bar Bulletin

Bad Law - No Soup for You: Character Assassination and the "Seinfeld" Finale

By Gene Barton


I don't recall much of the first part of the two-part "Seinfeld" finale that aired on NBC in May 1998 as the crescendo to the series' nine-season run. However, its ending and the second part still resonate to this day for someone who was still a fairly recently minted lawyer and remembered well Prof. Rob Aronson's Evidence class at UW Law School.

For those of you who don't remember it at all, or never saw it, the first part lands (literally) Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine in the small town of Latham, Massachusetts, where they run afoul of the law, and in the second part are tried and convicted, and each sentenced to a year in (apparently) prison. The premise, of course, is as goofy as the whole series was, and so was the circus that served as the trial. That may have been the whole point, but we legal purists protest.

At the end of the first part, our protagonists are arrested after they fail to come to the aid of a carjacking victim; in fact, they mock him instead of rendering assistance. In one of the few legal fine points that Larry David gets correct in the script, Latham actually has a new law on the books that requires bystanders to come to the aid of crime victims.

Legal Digression

This premise is, of course, contrary to the general common law - in the U.S. and many other countries - under which there is no "duty to rescue," i.e., to come to the aid of another person who is in peril.

Perhaps the most notorious illustration of this rule is the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, which was highlighted in my Torts textbook.1 Genovese was attacked three times outside an apartment house in New York City in the early morning of March 3, 1964. Her screams during the first two attacks alerted residents who turned on lights and in one instance yelled at the attacker. Yet, the attacker came back a third time and fatally stabbed Genovese. The first and third attacks were 35 minutes apart and no one called the police until 15 minutes after the third attack. In all, there were 38 witnesses, one of whom infamously told the police, "I didn't want to get involved."2

The authors wrote, "Whatever moral obligation the onlookers may have had, under American common law they had no legal duty to respond in any way to help Kitty Genovese."3 Genovese's murder apparently did not result in a civil case against the witnesses.

The authors noted that the doctrine dates back at least to an 1897 case in which the "absence of a general duty to come to the aid of another is enunciated vividly:"

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