Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Friday, September 3, 2021

With Keaton as Ken Feinberg for 9/11 20th, 'Worth' challenges tort norms with study of victim comp

Worth, a dramatization of Kenneth Feinberg's special mastership of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, dropped on Netflix today in select markets.

I frame my 1L Torts class with exploration of tort alternatives, and I periodically infuse our study with comparative law.  Typically, I begin Torts I in August with a study of the New Zealand accident compensation system.

I ask the class whether Americans might similarly embrace social compensation.  Notwithstanding their personal predilections, students readily identify objections based in deterrence dynamics, the American ethos of personal responsibility, and our cultural priority of "day in court" entitlement.

In the spring semester, I round out Torts II with a return to tort alternatives in America's exceptions to the rule, easing our study from worker compensation to compensation funds, such as 9/11 and BP.  Students are then challenged to consider: if Americans find the notion of New Zealand-style social compensation system so repellent, why do we embrace it when the stakes are especially high?

For two years now, I have used the German-made Playing God (2017), a documentary about Brockton, Mass.-native Feinberg, as a springboard for class discussion of the necessary parameters of social compensation systems, including valuations.  Previously, I used recorded lectures by Feinberg.  A good, recent, and more-concise-than-usual item is his talk at Chicago Ideas Week on the theme of his 2005 book, What is Life Worth?—the original title of the movie, Worth, according to IMDb.

Even if a torts professor does not wish to cover alternative compensation systems, these are useful audiovisual catalysts for discussion of the valuation of life and loss, as part of the study of damages.  Other worthy tools, in the podcast vein, include "Worth" on Radiolab (2014) and Feinberg's appearance on Freakonomics Radio (2018).

Starring Michael Keaton as Feinberg, Worth is necessarily a Hollywood conflation of events and issues, focusing on 9/11 upon its upcoming 20th anniversary.  Still, plenty of effort is exerted to remain faithful to history.  Feinberg is pictured enduring the heat of an angry and frustrated assembly of families, after which he has informative if discordant exchanges with individuals.  There are also discrete scenes of victim testimonies that might seem interruptive of flow in an ordinary drama, but can't help but captivate in the haunting context of 9/11.

These interactions and the orbiting characters who emerge in the story are clearly modeled on, or amalgams of, real events and persons, many of whom were recorded in videos from the time, and clips of which can be seen in Playing God.  Exemplifying his skills as a character actor, refined in landmark roles from Beetlejuice to Birdman to Ray Kroc, Keaton offers a compelling portrayal of Feinberg as the peculiar human protagonist whose likeness has become inextricable from American mass compensation systems, for better and for worse.

Worth is a superb ride and offers endless starting points for serious academic discourse on the subject of compensation models, not to mention the role of the legal profession and the complex sociology of death.  The film is a welcome addition to the audiovisual arsenal for classroom teaching to stimulate deep thinking on the wisdom of tort law.


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