On today’s date in 1998, the series finale of “Seinfeld” aired to an estimated 76 million viewers. “Seinfeld” lasted nine seasons, ranking in the top three of the Nielsen ratings for its last five, and is widely considered one of the greatest television shows of all time. Its success continues in syndication. Post-finale, “Seinfeld” has generated $3.1 billion in revenues for its creators and rights holders. This week, On Remand looks back at the show about nothing everything, a lawsuit about the origin of the character George Costanza, and cases that echo “Seinfeld” plots….
It is no surprise that a show that pored over the excruciating minutiae of daily events also featured legal issues. Jackie Chiles, the resident lawyer on “Seinfeld,” handled several cases for the gang, including their defense in the finale for violating a Good Samaritan law. While that may have resulted in another public humiliation for Chiles, elsewhere Jerry Seinfeld has praised the legal profession:
To me, a lawyer is basically the person who knows the rules of the country. We’re all throwing the dice, playing the game, moving our pieces around the board, but if there is a problem the lawyer is the only person who has read the inside of the top of the box.
Jerry Seinfeld’s lawyers certainly have read the inside of the top of the box. Shortly after the “Seinfeld” series finale aired in May 1998, they tackled a $100 million case against Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David (the show’s co-creator), and others alleging invasion of privacy, among other claims. According to plaintiff Michael Costanza, the character George Costanza was based on him, and the resulting association with the “Lord of the Idiots” was humiliating. The “other” Costanza’s evidence of the alleged inspiration? A shared last name, and the fact that both he and George are short, bald, overweight men from Queens who knew Jerry Seinfeld from school. In dismissing the case and awarding $5,000 in sanctions against Michael Costanza for filing a lawsuit “based on nothing” (there is no common-law claim for invasion of privacy in New York), the New York Supreme Court reminded the plaintiff that, “[w]hile a program about nothing can be successful, a lawsuit must have more substance.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, but reversed the award of sanctions.
In addition to lawsuits over the show itself, the “Seinfeld” legacy lives on in the courts in cases that mimic “Seinfeld” plots. Season 7’s “The Shower Head” is one example. In that episode, Elaine’s plans for a trip to Africa with her boss, J. Peterman, are thwarted when she tests positive for opiates as part of a pre-trip physical. Fearing Elaine has fallen under the spell of opium — “white lotus, yam-yam, Shanghai Sally” — Peterman bars her from the trip and then fires her following a second positive test. Elaine soon realizes that eating poppy seed muffins is to blame, and requests a third test. Unknowingly, however, just before the third test, she eats poppy seed-laced chicken. Realizing her mistake but with no time to spare, Elaine panics and bullies Jerry’s mother into giving her a clean sample. Elaine is rehired, but Peterman won’t let her accompany him to Africa because she is menopausal, has the metabolism of a sixty-eight year old woman, and may have osteoporosis.
Despite the episode’s role in alerting the poppy seed-eating public of the risk of a false positive test, apparently no one at a Pennsylvania hospital or child protective service agency saw “The Shower Head.” In at least two cases, in 2009 and 2010, Jameson Health System and Lawrence County Children and Youth Services removed newborn babies from their mothers, relying solely on the mothers’ urine samples, which showed opiate levels well below the federal government’s standard for a positive test. In Eileen A. Bower’s case, the (big?) pasta salad with poppy seed dressing she consumed in the hours before she gave birth led to a false positive test and an outrageous, egregious, preposterous seventy-five day separation from her new son, Brandon. In Elizabeth Mort’s case, an “everything” bagel caused the false positive, although Children and Youth Services quickly admitted its mistake and returned her baby after five days. Both women eventually settled their cases, for $160,000 and $143,500, respectively. But word has not spread elsewhere in Pennsylvania. In March of this year, another woman sued a different Pennsylvania hospital and child protective agency over their overly aggressive investigation of her “unconfirmed positive” opiate test (the culprit: poppy seed bread purchased at a farmer’s market).
Perhaps Jackie Chiles could have done better for the mothers in the poppy seed cases. But even Chiles might have had trouble defending the two men whose scheme seemed inspired by “The Bottle Deposit” ….