The great comic actor, writer, and director Harold Ramis passed away last week, and I can’t help but think back on a career that brought so much joy to billions of people over the last 40 years through hilarious films like Analyze This, The Ice Harvest and Year One.
When I think of Harold Ramis, I think laughter, not legal scholar. Looking back on the legal premises of some of his films, there is good reason for that!
In this classic frat house comedy, when the dean wants to remove the Deltas from campus, he sets up a kangaroo court to have their charter revoked and send them packing. The hearing that the dean presides over clearly denies the fraternity’s rights to procedural due process in the form of an opportunity to be heard before an impartial tribunal.
The entirety of what the Deltas are permitted to say on their own behalf before the dean instructs the panel’s chairman that he’s heard enough takes up only 13 seconds of screen time. In fact, the student representing the fraternity is not even allowed to complete the sentence, “I was told I’d have a chance to sp—” before being shut down for the court to render its decision.
As for impartiality of the tribunal, it’s non-existent. The president of the Deltas’ rival, the Omegas, is the chair, and not only does he want to see the Deltas lose their charter, he is acting at the pleasure of the dean, who has his own axe to grind against them. With the dean’s thumb weighing down the scales of justice so prejudicially against them, the Deltas never had a chance!
After the events of 1984’s Ghostbusters, one would have expected the titular crew to be considered heroes for rescuing the city from a 500-foot tall marshmallow man and other assorted ghouls and goblins. But instead, they were blamed for the ghost-caused carnage and sued to the point of being driven out of business.
This series of events might make for good narrative storytelling (or not, considering the terribleness of the second one; then again, Ghostbusters III is in development), but it ignores the law entirely.
First, I have to imagine the Ghostbusters had a pretty standard contract indemnifying them for any ancillary damage they might inadvertently cause while bustin’ ghosts. There is a deleted scene on the deluxe Blu-Ray edition of the movie in which Venckman and Egon go through the contract line by line, but most of us haven’t dug that deep in the supplemental features to have seen it, so you’ll just have to take my word for that.
Second, New York law provides for a Good Samaritan defense for those whose negligence causes harm while in the act of attempting to rescue. Surely, a halfway-decent lawyer (maybe not Rick Moranis’ character, the befuddled Louis Tully, but almost anyone else) could have argued the defense with ease.
Finally, there was nothing to suggest that the Ghostbusters caused the mayhem of the original movie (unless the whole ghost-busting business was just a front so Ray Stantz could find love with the dearly departed); it was clearly the result of the nefarious EPA, whose hatchet man Walter Peck (played to the smug epitome of 1980s perfection by William Atherton) shut down the power to the containment unit and unleashed the torrent of ghosts on the city to begin with! If anyone should have been sued out of business, it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (For fun, can anyone name in the comments the only other major motion picture in which the EPA is the villain?)
Not exactly a legal beef with this one, but document review is a lot like repeating the same day over and over again ad infinitum. Having done it, I can tell you that living the same day without end, there is no great personal development on the level of mastering French poetry or learning to play the piano. And the last time I tried ice carving with a chainsaw, all I got was a restraining order. (Once again, I’m sorry to the Kowalskis for the damage to your memorial oak. And to Fluffy. But, in my defense, how was I to know he was attracted to loud buzzing noises?)
R.I.P. Harold Ramis. A comedy genius, but as far as legal knowledge goes, he was a little more pre-med.