April 6, 2007
Harvard Law School, Asbestos, and April Fools
Here's an early April article in the Harvard Law Record: Ukrainian Institute Leaks Asbestos, Students Sue.
Maybe I've lost my sense of humor. April Fools issues of student papers are a time-honored tradition, and this piece is typically clever. But if you know anything about mesothelioma, it's just hard to find it funny.
As law teachers, we know the challenge presented by humor. I confess I've often played cases for a laugh. It keeps students engaged, focuses their attention on key points, and builds an environment that encourages participation. And besides, it's fun.
But there's a cost to laughter that distances students from the human drama in the cases. I've learned to be careful about deploying laughter when teaching cases that involve serious harm. For one thing, I work on the assumption that someone among the students has personal experience with the harm. In any large classroom, someone has lost a parent to cancer, someone has been sexually assaulted, someone has a close friend who suffered a disfiguring accident. If I'm making light of a case, that person is silently seething. But more importantly, I want my students to get into the mindset of lawyers who empathize with their clients (and, ideally, who empathize with their clients' adversaries as well, without losing a sense of loyalty to their own clients).
So when I see this funny Harvard Law Record article about "fears that full-fledged mesothelioma has struck members of the law school community," I have to wonder. What were these student authors thinking when they studied asbestos cases in their law school classes? Was the notion of massive numbers of people getting sick and dying just an abstraction? Just a random "fact pattern" as a set-up for issues of proximate causation, product identification, class certification, and reverse auction? Or were they thinking about a generation of workers who spent years working with an insulation fiber in power plants, naval yards, construction, and elsewhere, only to find out later that the fiber would kill many of them? Were they thinking about the families these workers left behind? If that's how you understand asbestos, jokes come harder.
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