Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Mass. App. remands textbook 'keys-in-ignitions' case on foreseeability analysis

Today the Massachusetts Appeals Court published a clean and concise opinion on negligence, focusing on foreseeability as an aspect of duty.  The decision covers basic elements and points of civil procedure, so could be of use to tort profs introducing negligence this semester.  The case is R.L. Currie Corp. v. East Coast Sand & Gravel, Inc., No. 17-P-1186 (Aug. 21, 2018).

The facts are a classic keys-left-in-car-then-stolen scenario, unfortunately involving heavy equipment instead of a car.  Employee of defendant snow-plow service left a front loader running idle and unlocked in a shared company lot.  There had been previous thefts of materials, but not heavy machinery.  Keys were routinely left in unlocked vehicles, but hidden.  In the employee's four-hour absence, the loader was driven by an unknown third party and crashed into two of plaintiff's trucks.

The trial court dismissed for failure of foreseeability, deciding no duty as a matter of law and awarding summary judgment.  The court here aptly reiterated the dual role of foreseeability as an aspect of duty and of causation.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court previously declined to adopt a doctrine of no liability as a matter of law for "keys left in ignitions" cases, employing general notions of foreseeability instead.  Upon such precedents, the appellate court remanded, concluding that the trial court erred in finding intentional vandalism beyond the scope of foreseeability as a matter of law.

Incidentally, the panel author is relatively new to the court, since July 2017.  Associate Justice Dalila Wendlandt is New Orleans born (close to my heart) and was a proper engineer who built robots at MIT before going to law school, joining the IP litigation group at Ropes & Gray, and publishing in patent law.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

3Ps for 1Ls: Advice for the new law student

We have 96 new faces at UMass Law School this fall semester.  New students often ask for advice: how best to prepare for class?  There is no easy answer.  That is, the answer is easy to understand, but there is no getting around the fact that effective law school work is hard.  Here are my three Ps for 1Ls: preparation, perspiration, and postparation.

The first P is preparation.  You have a homework assignment and need to do it.  Especially in a large class, you will be able to hide, so I can’t guarantee accountability.  But not doing the assignment will be your loss.  So many students find themselves too far behind late in the semester, unable to compensate for poor choices early on.  That deficit can become amplified throughout law school.  When class doesn’t cover every aspect of an assignment—we skip cases, or don’t engage with all parts of a case—the student can be misled into thinking that the entirety of an assignment is not important and that the game is in trying to pare down assignments to just what one needs to know.  Make this mistake at your own risk.

Learning in law school is an organic and partly subconscious process.  When you read, for example, an appellate opinion, you are learning much more than what we have time to discuss in class: about jurisdiction, motion practice, client representation, style of argument, standards of review, judicial temperament, and legal writing techniques—not to mention overtones of politics, economics, and culture.  Reading such content across the 1L curriculum is your inculcation of American legal culture, so-called “thinking like a lawyer.”  If you opt out of this process, you will find yourself increasingly lost in law school in a way that will be difficult to put your finger on.  The materials assigned to you have been carefully selected and edited to communicate lessons on the face of the text and between the lines.  Don’t waste the opportunity; you’re paying for it.

The second P is perspiration.  You don’t have to worry about this, because it happens naturally: sweating through class.  Students often are frustrated at the start of law school.  What you thought you prepared thoroughly turns out not to answer the questions asked.  The professor seems not to be giving you “what I need to know.”  Questions often are answered with more questions.  If that’s not often happening in your law school class, then you’re not getting your money’s worth.

Legal education is not like other programs in higher education.  Contrary to popular belief—a belief held even by some misguided university administrators—the job of a law professor in a core course is neither to prepare you for the bar exam nor to prepare you for practice—at least not directly.  To be clear, we calculate that what we do in a core course advances you toward those important goals.  But our aim is not so narrow and not so shallow.  That inculcation of American legal culture again: that’s our aim.  If you can memorize rules and learn IRAC techniques of legal analysis, then you can pass the bar exam.  You don’t have to go to law school for that; you certainly don’t need year-long, five- or six-hour classes for that.  As for the practice of law, that’s much more than we can do in any one class.  The practice of law will be the culminating result of your inculcation of legal culture.  This is the archetype of the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In legal education, the job of the professor is to help you help yourself.  The student bears responsibility for learning.  The process is one of much investment, trial, and often, error and correction.  The professor shows the way through assignments and class work, sometimes correcting the student’s course.  The professor supports you with formative tools; an exam is one of those.  The professor cannot do the work for you, and the professor’s job is not to make the road easy or smooth.  Sometimes a student struggles in dialog with the professor in class and is embarrassed.  There is no cause for embarrassment.  If the student struggled for failure to prepare, then one’s energy would be spent best by circling back to the first P.  If the student struggled because it took time and investment to work toward a productive answer, then the struggle should be worn as a badge of honor.  This is the archetype of growth through adversity.

The third P is postparation.  I’m not the first to use the term.  In legal education, it’s the work you do after a class, related to that class.  As a general matter, you should budget the same amount of time for preparation and postparation.  Both are critical; the learning process is only halfway done when class ends.  Postparation is the time to review what you learned; to pick up the pieces of what you misunderstood or mis-prioritized; to identify remaining knowledge gaps that you will seek to fill by consulting study aids, peers, tutors, TAs, professors; and to build your newly acquired understanding into a comprehensive recall system going forward.  An immediate goal of postparation is to outline a review for the final exam.  By semester’s-end reading days, it will be too late to outline effectively for all of your courses.  More importantly, though, postparation is reinforcement.  Ample empirical research in education has demonstrated that knowledge is committed most thoroughly and fluidly to long-term recall through multiple engagements—at least three.  If you’ve already invested well in the first two Ps, don’t throw away that investment by skimping on the third.

Law school is hard work.  It involves the training of your mind in a new way of approaching problems—not just legal problems, but social and economic problems of public policy.  It takes times and patience to train the mind in a new discipline.  The speed of this acculturation is not necessarily a function of intelligence nor purely a function of determination.  Legal acculturation changes a person, often with collateral ramifications for social, psychological, and even physical health.  Working to the endgame can nevertheless prove worthwhile.  The law is a powerful tool for those who would shape our world.  


Suggested Further Reading:

  • Andrew J. McClurg, 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor's Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (3d ed. 2017) (Amazon).
  • Helene Shapo & Marshall Shapo, Law School Without Fear: Strategies for Success (3d ed. 2009) (West Academic).

Friday, July 27, 2018

Nuisance rule for trees rooted in history, reaffirmed by Mass. high court


In an opinion suitable for textbooks, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the rule of nuisance that neighbor may not sue neighbor over property damage from a healthy, overhanging tree.

A resident of Randolph, Massachusetts, complained that a neighbor's overhanging tree, a 100-foot sugar oak, had caused property damage by promoting algae on the complainant's roof.  The high court reiterated the historic rule that a property owner cannot be held liable in nuisance for damage caused by a neighbor's healthy tree, whether unruly roots that damage a foundation, or the natural shedding of leaves, branches, and sap.  A neighbor is entitled to trim back offending incursions, the court observed.

The court reaffirmed the historic rule despite the complainant's entreaty to consider alternative approaches from other states.  The rule emerged from a time of lower population density, when it would have been excessively burdensome for property owners to monitor all trees near property lines, the court explained.  "We invite challenge to antiquated laws," the court wrote.  Nevertheless, the court declined to "uproot precedent."  The historic rule continues to have relevance by minimizing litigation, the court reasoned, especially when the law is clear that a neighbor may cut back overhanging branches.

Affirming the lower court, the case is Shiel v. Rowell, No. SJC-12432 (Mass. July 16, 2018) (Cypher, J.).

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Money in soccer, money in higher ed: Lazio will never be Juventus; will the UMasses ever be ‘UMass’?

This morning I was reminded of this observation about football (soccer) from The Blizzard (#25, June 2017), spoken by Swedish football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, now coaching in China, in an interview by football writer Vladimir Novak (@VNovak13):


Well, whether you like it or not, to make a winning team you need money. One could argue that Leicester has won the Premier League title even though they invested far less money than, for example, Manchester United or other clubs, but that was an exception. Fact is, in the long run, if you want to be a big club, you need money. Bayern Munich is Bayern Munich, Barcelona is Barcelona, Real Madrid is Real Madrid and so on. You cannot build a great team without money. I think you have a good example with Lazio. When I was at Lazio, Sergio Cragnotti was the chairman and owner of the club, and he invested a lot of money. And then, after he left, all changed. Lazio are still a big club. Maybe they have the chance to win the Serie A title now and then, but they are not Juventus.


The statement reminds me of why I stopped being a baseball fan many years ago.  The Baltimore Orioles were my Lazio.  They would never be the Red Sox or Yankees.

It struck me that this almost self-evident assertion is true of more than football and baseball—indeed, is true of higher education.  And in higher education, disparate resources play an out-sized role in perpetuating socio-economic disparity and widening the gap of opportunity and wealth that afflicts the United States.

In Arkansas, where I started in academics, the public higher ed system was loosely and unofficially divided in just this way.  The well-resourced University of Arkansas—the top tier never needs a geographic locator (Fayetteville)—served the state’s elite.  The slimly resourced University of Arkansas at Little Rock served an urban working class.  And the resource-starved University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff served the rural and poor—disproportionately African American.  The same dynamic described the state’s law schools in Fayetteville and Little Rock (with few graduate options in Pine Bluff).  Incentivized by monied interests, as usual in politics, the state legislature perennially resisted calls to level the playing field.  The schools themselves were complicit in maintaining the status quo.

I thought Massachusetts would take a more progressive approach with its first and only public law school in Dartmouth.  It hasn’t, at least not yet.  Boston’s many private schools fill in the top-tier options in Massachusetts, while the law school, affiliated with UMass Dartmouth, fits in at the Little Rock-like mid-level, focusing on the working-class South Coast.  The otherwise elite “UMass” (Amherst), the state flagship, has legal research resources—for that matter, research resources in any field—superior to UMass Dartmouth’s, even with no law school there.  UMass Boston might be the state’s Pine Bluff.  Each campus knows its place and stays in its socio-economic lane.
 
There is limited revenue sharing to level the playing field in European soccer and in American baseball.  Those measures resulted when, and only insofar as, the un-level playing field was recognized as a threat to the survival of the sport business model.  That’s OK; sport is business.

Higher education isn’t business.  Higher education is supposed to be about opportunity for all those who merit it.  To be clear, this is a libertarian ideal.  Higher education is about teaching people to fish, not giving fish away.  It’s potentially the best social welfare program ever conceived.

I was reminded of this sport-ed money analogy this morning when I received a text alert that the main library at UMass Dartmouth is closing because of an air conditioning failure—again.  I wonder how often the A/C fails at UMass (Amherst).  You cannot build a great library, law school, university, or team without money.

As a society, we have to come to grips with the role of money in higher education—especially the money managed by foundations that purport independence and entitlement to opacity despite being under the direct control of supposedly transparent public universities.

We have to decide whether higher ed will continue to be part of the wealth-and-opportunity gap problem or part of the solution.  The UMass campuses east of Amherst deserve more than an occasional title.  They should all be Juventus.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Mass. appellate courts render two wrongful death opinions in attenuated duty and causation

Massachusetts appellate courts have rendered two wrongful death opinions in the last two days, both favoring plaintiffs.

In Dubuque v. Cumberland Farms, Inc. (AC 17-P-266) (June 6, 2018), the Court of Appeals upheld a $20m judgment against the convenience store after inadequate "bollard" protection of a pedestrian who was killed when struck by an out-of-control car.  The opinion includes an interesting discussion on evidence regarding the admissibility of past pedestrian-car collisions arguably similar or distinguishable.

Today in Correa v. Schoeck (SJC 12409), the Supreme Judicial Court reinstated Walgreens pharmacy as a defendant in the tragic death of a 19-year-old who was unable to fill a prescription for life-saving medication.  The prescription was hung up on paperwork somewhere among pharmacy, doctor's office, and insurer.  The court held the pharmacy bound to at least a thin reed of duty in the negligence claim.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

'FERPA Close-Up: When Video Captures Violence and Injury'

With Kitty Cone, Esq., I've published FERPA Close-Up: When Video Captures Violence and Injury, 70:4 Okla. L. Rev. 839 (2018), available to download from SSRN and elsewhere.  We are grateful to the staff of the Oklahoma Law Review, who were meticulous and a pleasure to work with.  Here is the abstract.

Federal privacy law is all too often misconstrued or perverted to preclude the disclosure of video recordings that capture students victimized by violent crime or tortious injury. This misuse of federal law impedes transparency and accountability and, in many cases, even jeopardizes the health, safety, and lives of children. When properly construed, however, federal law is no bar to disclosure and, at least in public schools, works in tandem with freedom of information laws to ensure disclosure. This Article posits that without unequivocal guidance from federal administrative authorities, uncertainty regarding the disclosure of such recordings will continue to linger, jeopardizing the ability of plaintiffs to access needed information.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Mass. supreme court: MIT owed no duty in suicide case

Today the high court of Massachusetts held no duty, as a matter of law, in a wrongful death case of attenuated duty and causation in which the plaintiff sought to hold the Massachusetts Institute of Technology liable in negligence for a struggling student's suicide.  The court left the door open for proof of a special relationship on different facts.

Tort watchers and university counsel near and far have been awaiting the decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, No. SJC-12329 (May 7, 2018).  The November 7 oral argument in the case is online here.
 
A university-student relationship is not completely outside the custodial scope that gives rise to a duty in tort law in K12, the court held; nor is it completely the same.  Rather, the court "must ... take into account a complex mix of competing considerations.  Students are adults but often young and vulnerable; their right to privacy and their desire for independence may conflict with their immaturity and need for protection."

With regard to a suicide risk, reasonable foreseeability is key to the special relationship/duty analysis.  Relevant factors include whether student reliance on the university impeded others who might have rendered aid, as might occur in a student-residential environment; and, from research by emerita Washington & Lee University Law School professor Ann MacLean Massie, the court quoting,

"degree of certainty of harm to the plaintiff; burden upon the defendant to take reasonable steps to prevent the injury; some kind of mutual dependence of plaintiff and defendant upon each other, frequently . . . involving financial benefit to the defendant arising from the relationship; moral blameworthiness of defendant's conduct in failing to act; and social policy considerations involved in placing the economic burden of the loss on the defendant."
In discussing the flexibility of this analysis, Judge Learned Hand's famous BPL test made an appearance (a test customarily directed to breach rather than duty), off-setting the gravity of a suicide by probability, and balancing the result against the burden on the university of employing effective preventive measures.  The court also emphasized the dispositive nature of actual knowledge: "Where a university has actual knowledge of a student's suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student's stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm."

In the instant case, "Nguyen never communicated by words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, and any prior suicide attempts occurred well over a year before matriculation."  He also strove to partition his mental health treatment from his academic life.

The court upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the tort claims as a matter of law.