Firefly was wickedly creative, well-written and had fantastic humor. Spaceships and wardrobe that ranged from Western to Steampunk to Chinese aside, Firefly presented excellent Contract formation issues.
Contract formation consists of 1) Offer; 2) Acceptance; 3) Consideration; and 4) Performance.
In the world of Firefly, it was often 1) Offer 2) Acceptance 3) Gunfight (also known as breach). Let’s review three episodes to examine these contract issues.
Consideration in Contract Law involves something of “value” being given up by a promissor to a promisee in exchange for something of value given by a promisee to a promissor (Nice summary in Wikipedia). In Shindig, the consideration for earning Warrick Harrow’s cattle shipment job was surviving a sword fight with one of Inara’s clients (it also could be a condition precedent, because Mal did have to survive the fight).
Since the old idea that consideration can be a peppercorn, a sword fight does not seem too crazy in a future with space cowboys fighting an oppressive regime.
The Train Job
The Train Job was the second episode in the series. Malcolm Reynolds formed an oral contract with a crime boss named Adelei Niska to steal medical supplies from a train. Niska made a payment for the work to be performed, which involves extracting cargo from a fast-moving train with Alliance soldiers onboard.
The heist was a success, with the exception the Captain and Zoe were stuck on the train and ultimately needed to be “rescued” by Inara after being detained in town.
However, once Mal and Zoe reached the destination of the cargo, they learned the medicine was vital for the survival of a mining town where everyone was suffering from the effects of mining.
Mal’s following actions are best described as contract rescission, which is the unwinding of an agreement. Mal decided to return the stolen medicine to the town and the money back to Niska. Granted, since this was an action show, there was a gunfight and someone sucked through a jet intake before Niska’s men accepted the rescission (non-traditional contract remedies were later sought by Niska in War Stories).
Out of Gas
The contract issues in Out of Gas focused on a salvage ship that found the crippled Serenity with only Mal onboard.
The salvage captain boarded Serenity and shot Mal after seeing Mal was telling the truth about Serenity’s damage (this was after Mal offered anything of value in the ship’s hold).
The actions up until the shooting showed the parties went beyond offer and acceptance to performance, because the salvage captain boarded Serenity with the compression coil in hand.
Given the fact payment had not been determined, there was an uncertain term to the contract. However, there was sufficient evidence to show a contract had been formed based upon the conduct of the parties (boarding Serenity with the part Mal requested from the salvage captain).
After being shot, Mal armed himself with the gun from the “Mule” and ordered the captain and crew off his ship. While there was no payment made for the compression coil, the salvage captain breached his agreement when he shot Mal. Keeping the compression coil would have been the proper damage recovery (sure, there is a separate cause of action for shooting someone).
Curse Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal
The remedy for a breach of contract is either money damages or equitable remedies. Gunfights in the series aside, Out of Gas focused more on the equitable remedy of specific performance. In the instance of The Train Job, returning Niska’s money was designed to put him in the same place as he was before the contract with Malcolm Renyolds.
So let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job and then I get paid.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds
Firefly essentially was about engaging in contract work for payment. Each episode has different themes on issues of formation, breach or remedies. While the show was certainly not a transactional space adventure with cowboys, the contract issues are very prevalent.