Reynolds vs. Reynolds: Real Legal Lessons Beyond the “Cereal Defense”
The hit sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is best known for its absurd and outlandish brand of comedy. The show premiered in 2005 and follows four childhood friends – known as “the gang” – who own a bar in Philadelphia called “Paddy’s Pub.”
One would not expect to find decent examples of actual legal concepts in the show. However, there is one episode in Season 8 that features some legitimate legal concepts that any law student or practicing attorney could spot. This blog discusses a few of the legal concepts showcased in the episode of “Always Sunny” titled “Reynolds vs. Reynolds: The Cereal Defense.”
“Reynolds vs. Reynolds: The Cereal Defense” focuses on a traffic accident involving two of the main characters. To better understand the episode, it is necessary to provide some background on the main cast and characters.
The show’s main cast includes:
- Charlie Kelly (portrayed by Charlie Day) – a co-owner of Paddy’s Pub who works as the bar’s eccentric janitor and rat-exterminator. It is strongly implied that Charlie suffers from some sort of brain damage.
- Dennis Reynolds (portrayed by Glenn Howerton) – a co-owner and bartender of Paddy’s Pub who has a twin sister, Deandra. Dennis is the most rational yet sociopathic characters of the Gang.
- Ronald “Mac” McDonalds (portrayed by Rob McElhenney) – another co-owner and self-proclaimed “sheriff” of Paddy’s Pub. Mac claims to be an expert in martial arts.
- Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds (portrayed by Kaitlin Olsen) – Dennis’ twin sister and bartender with aspirations of being an actress.
- Frank Reynolds (portrayed by Danny DeVito) – the father figure of Dennis and Dee who abandoned a successful career as a businessman to pursue a “feral” lifestyle.
The episode began as Frank drove down the road while listening to a tape-recording of Charlie reciting directions. Meanwhile, Dennis sat in his car, stopped at a traffic light while inexplicably eating a bowl of cereal. As a result of becoming distracted by Charlie’s incomprehensible directions, Frank rear-ended Dennis’ car, forcing him to spill his cereal.
Consequently, Dennis incurred property damage to his car’s interior due to spilling his cereal. Dennis did not claim any other injury or property damage.
Ultimately, Dennis demanded compensation from Frank for the damage he negligently caused to the interior of his car. However, Frank argued that he is not obligated to pay Dennis anything since the only damage to the car involved interior damage caused by Dennis’ spilled cereal.
Although Dennis wanted to take Frank to court, the Gang decided that they should handle the issue “internally” by holding a pseudo-trial at Paddy’s Bar.
Using Corrective Lenses
Dennis’ first claim was that Frank should pay for the interior damage to his car, alleging that Frank “cannot see.” Frank countered by saying “I can see. I got glasses – I just need new lenses.”
Under New York law, when a driver’s license indicates the need for corrective lenses while driving, the driver is obligated to comply. If they fail to wear corrective lenses and cause an accident, they can be held liable for negligence. This principal was best summarized by Mac, who told frank, “If you were driving around without the use of sight, then that is completely irresponsible, and you need to pay for the damages.”
Assumption of Risk & Contributory Negligence
In an effort to illustrate his argument, Dennis performed a simple demonstration: he gave Frank a glass of wine from the bar, then shoved him from behind, causing Frank to spill the wine on his shirt. Dennis then commented, “Whoopsie, whoopsie! See, I bashed into Frank while he was at a dead stop. That’s completely my fault, Frank. I will pay for all the damages to your shirt. Case closed!”
However, Mac interjected to say, “It occurs to me that Frank assumed responsibility for a potential spill the second he took the wine.” To which Frank added, “Yeah, he’s right. I knew the risk!”
Mac added, “So in this circumstance, it would appear Frank is at fault, and therefore, in the car, Dennis is at fault – I am on Frank’s side! Case closed!”
“Assumption of risk” is a standard affirmative defense that defendants typically raise in response to the plaintiff’s negligence claim. If a plaintiff knew about a certain risk of harm in a particular situation but voluntarily choose to involve themselves in said situation, the plaintiff is deemed to have assumed the risk of incurring such a harm and the defendant is relieved of liability for causing that harm.
In Reynolds vs. Reynolds, Mac, and Frank appear to be arguing that when Dennis decided to eat cereal in his car, he assumed the risk of spilling the cereal and damaging the interior.
Assumption of risk is also similar to the notion of “contributory negligence” – another defense to negligence. Under the theory of contributory negligence, if the plaintiff’s own negligence caused their injury, the defendant is not liable to pay damages.
Here, Mac and Frank have a pretty good argument that Dennis contributorily negligent by choosing to eat a bowl of cereal while driving. In general, drivers are legally obligated to refrain from engaging in distracting activities while driving such as eating. Furthermore, the only damage to Dennis’ car was strictly the result of Dennis’ spilled cereal. As a result, the interior of Dennis’ car would not have been ruined, but for Dennis’ decision to eat cereal while driving.
Impeaching Witness Credibility
After Mac raised his assumption of risk argument, Dee decided to cross-examine him and asked, “Do you, or do you not, believe that you can create a superhuman race of strongmen through genetic mutation and evolution.”
When Mac questioned the relevancy of Dee’s question, she responded by saying, “If you can believe something that insane…how can we believe anything that you have to say?”
Under the rules of evidence, a witness’ credibility can be called into question. Evidence that refutes a witness’ credibility is called “impeachment” evidence. One method of impeaching a witness’ credibility involves demonstrating that they fail to qualify as a competent witness. This can be accomplished by showing that they lack the requisite mental capacity to serve as a competent witness.
Ultimately Mac answered Dee’s question by saying, “I was joking with Charlie. That could never happen in the real world, Dee.”
Dennis then immediately asked, “Why don’t you believe that you could pass down a gene that could eventually evolve into a race of supermen.”
To which Mac replied, “Well that’s a silly question. Because evolution doesn’t exist.”
The above exchange is a good example of how trial attorneys should only ask questions to which they already know the answers. Dennis’ last question for Mac is also an excellent example of using the reexamination procedure in court to counteract unfavorable testimony.
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