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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Beyond the Traditional Syllabus: Using Narrative to Teach Torts

Four_trialsLast week, I wrote about one of the ways (using a Navajo court opinion and a Canadian case) that I have tried to expand my syllabus beyond the traditional slate of federal and state appellate opinions.

Yesterday, I had a tremendously energetic class based on a case reading that wasn't a judicial opinion at all.

Our reading was a personal-injury attorney's first-person narrative of Howard v. Collins & Aikman Corp. (N.C. Super. Ct. 1990), a wrongful death suit brought by a four-year-old boy after an overworked tractor-trailer driver crossed into oncoming traffic, jackknifed his rig, and crawled up on top of the passenger car carrying the boy’s mother and father.

The author, of course, is John Edwards. Before he was a meteorically rising and falling presidential candidate, he was a multi-multi-multi-million-dollar success as a tort lawyer. We have his political ambition to thank for the valuable residue left over in the form of his autobiographical collection of plaintiff-side war stories, Four Trials.

I'm using each one of the four chapters this year to replace an appellate opinion on my syllabus. Each chapter discusses one case, and in so doing, does what a good appellate opinion should for a law-school class: It presents facts, applies law, and serves as a basis for classroom dialog. But these narratives go so much further, exposing the tactical, strategic, and human side of lawyering that lies beyond the sightlines of the appellate bench. The facts are richer, and the real-world context for the legal doctrine is more clear. Best of all, the text is gripping and imminently readable. These stories make marvelous teaching tools, and I urge you to try them. USA Today published an excerpt you can assign without using the book itself. But if you want more than one, the paperback only adds a relatively guilt-free $13 to students' bookstore bills.

Here's a list of chapters, corresponding doctrinal topics, and specific page assignments (so you can skip the campaign-preening interludes):

Sawyer v. St. Joseph's Hospital (Chapter 1 "E.G.")
- medical malpractice
- settlement dynamics
- professional standard of care
portion directly concerning the case: pp. 17-48

Campbell v. Pitt County Memorial Hospital (Chapter 2 "Jennifer")
- medical malpractice
- informed consent
- remittitur
portion of chapter directly concerning the case: pp. 51-113

Howard v. Collins & Aikman Corp. (Chapter 3 "Josh")
- breach of duty
- compensatory damages
- punitive damages
portion directly concerning the case: pp. 131 (at section start) to 159

Lakey v. Sta-Rite Industries (Chapter 4 "Valerie")
- products liability
portion of chapter directly concerning the case: pp. 178 (at section start) to 230

Note: The above information is keyed to the paperback edition, published in 2004 by Simon & Schuster, ISBN-10: 0743272048, ISBN-13: 978-0743272049.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on October 16, 2008 at 10:05 PM in Teaching Law, Torts | Permalink


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Hearing the plaintiff lawyer's side of these things sounds really intriguing, but the idea that some fraction of $13 could further enrich John Edwards would make me feel profoundly guilty about buying the book. I don't think I could do it.

Posted by: Bored Associate | Oct 17, 2008 10:33:48 AM

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