“Inside ‘Star Wars’ are values that mean something to people. It’s aspirational. It’s full of hope.”
— Kathleen Kennedy
“I never got into ‘Star Wars.’ Maybe because they made no attempt to portray real physics. At all.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson
America’s most famous astrophysicist may not have ever “gotten into” Star Wars because it plays fast and loose with physics, but as a child of the 1970s, “Star Wars” toys were a key part of every Christmas for me. And so it is that as I sit here writing this column on Wednesday evening, I’m anxiously awaiting Thursday night, when my family and I will be part of a sellout crowd at the Strand’s first showing of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
But Tyson’s comment got me thinking that the events of the “Star Wars” films would provide a great backdrop to teach various aspects of law- crime, torts, contracts, real property, even estate planning. Perhaps some clever law school professor out there has already done it, but in this week’s column let’s look at how some events in a galaxy far, far away might enlighten us about the law back here at home.
Estate Planning — We know from the earliest scenes of 1977’s “A New Hope” that Star Wars is not going to be a happy fairy tale. Not only does Darth Vader begin choking people immediately, but mere minutes later, Luke finds that Stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle and burned their home. If Beru and Owen didn’t leave a will, who inherits their land, their speeder, and that nifty food processor we see Beru using? We know that Owen and Beru didn’t have any children, and that Owen’s parents, Cliegg and Aika are dead. We don’t know anything about Beru’s family, and we don’t know whether they ever legally adopted Owen’s step-nephew Luke. If they did, then Luke is their closest surviving relative and he would inherit even if they didn’t leave a will. If they didn’t, then the path of distribution would depend on Beru’s living relatives.
Criminal Law — Speaking of Owen and Beru, they met their demise because Owen purchased some sketchy droids from some even sketchier Jawas. And those Jawas just happened to find those droids wandering in the middle of a desert. Are the Jawas, or even Uncle Owen, guilty of receiving stolen property? Ohio law provides that it is a crime to “receive, retain, or dispose of” property if you know, “or have reasonable cause to believe” that the property has been obtained through the commission of a theft offense. For Owen, this might turn on his past dealings with the Jawas, and whether those dealings have given him knowledge. If they’re reputable used droid salesmen, then he’s probably fine. But if they’re known to deal in hot protocol droids, then he might be in trouble with the Imperial police.
Torts — Tort law deals with personal injury, and in the original Star Wars trilogy there is no more central personal injury than Luke getting his arm cut off by his father at the end of “Empire Strikes Back.” Vader is certainly personally liable, but Luke might be reluctant to sue his dad, and Vader is dead by the end of “Return of the Jedi” anyway. Surely, the Empire has substantial assets, and since Vader goes after Luke on the instructions of the Emperor, then Vader is clearly employed by the Empire when the injury happens, and the Empire is liable for the actions of its employee in the course of his work for them. Luke might also join Lando Calrissian and Cloud City in that suit, claiming that dangerous conditions led to his being in the reactor shaft to begin with.
Employment Law — One of the wonderful things about 2016’s “The Force Awakens” is that it brought back our favorite interstellar duo, Han Solo and Chewbacca. We know that Solo is a smuggler, but we don’t know exactly how he pays his favorite Wookiee, or if he even pays him at all. Is Chewbacca owed overtime compensation? Should Han be paying into Social Security for him? The answer might turn on whether Chewie is an employee or an independent contractor. It would appear that Han sets Chewie’s hours, that Han provides his place of work and all of his equipment, and that their relationship is about as permanent as you can get. These factors all suggest that Chewie is an employee and not an independent contractor.
We also know that if Chewie brings a lawsuit, the court might be swayed by that sage advice from C3PO — “‘Let the Wookiee win.”