February 22, 2011
Tuesdays with Torts Masters: Jeffrey O'Connell
Jeffrey O'Connell, the Samuel H. McCoy II Professor of Law at Virginia, is co-author of the principal work that proposed no-fault insurance. Most recently O'Connell has designed an "early offers" plan where businesses facing personal injury lawsuits could promptly pay injured parties for out-of-pocket medical expenses and lost wages.
After O'Connell graduated from Harvard Law School, he was a trial lawyer in Boston with the firm of Hale & Dorr. He came to Virginia in 1980 after 16 years at the University of Illinois. He also has taught at the University of Iowa and has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, the University of Michigan, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, and Oxford and Cambridge universities in England. He was the recipient of Guggenheim fellowships in 1973 and 1979. In 1989 he was the Thomas Jefferson Visiting Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge University and, in 1991, the John Marshall Harlan Visiting Distinguished Professor at New York Law School. In 1992 he received the Robert B. McKay Award for Tort and Insurance Scholarship from the American Bar Association.
Jeffrey was my Torts professor and the reason, in several ways, that I'm in the academy. I recently had the chance to ask him some questions about his background.
- Why did you apply to law school? Where did you go to law school, and why did you select that school?
I applied to law school out of interest in both legal and political matters. I went to Harvard because it was near home and I intended to practice in Massachusetts.
2. Who was your Torts professor, and what was your experience as a Torts student?
My Torts professor was Calvert McGruder, a sitting federal judge on the First Circuit, who taught part-time. It was not a very enlightening course.
3. How did you become interested in teaching law and Torts in particular?
I became interested in teaching Torts rather indirectly. The professor teaching it for years was retiring and, although I did not consider it to be my major research activity, I thought it would be a good first- year course to teach. I quickly became aware, through the writings of Fleming James, of what a disaster tort law was and how much reform was needed. As to my becoming interested in teaching law in the first place, I taught speech at Tufts University as a means of putting myself through law
school and found that I much enjoyed teaching and the law.
4. When did you begin teaching Torts, and how have the course and the Torts professoriate changed since then?
I began teaching torts in about 1961. Unfortunately, except for a few scholars, most tort books have not challenged the outmoded criteria of negligence in a modern, mechanized world. For the typical personal injury case, tort law has progressed little if at all.
5. What do you see as your major accomplishments as a scholar and teacher?
My major accomplishment as a teacher and a scholar arose early in my career when I joined with Prof. Robert Keeton of the Harvard Law school in proposing what is generally credited as the leading cause of the adoption of no-fault insurance. And I'm still a fan despite all the tribulations that a major legal reform faces.
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