Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why The Verdict is an Evil Movie

When I was a 1L we had a professor as our "section leader" who did not teach any of our 1L courses, but who was supposed to do activities with us, answer questions, and the like. One of the very first things we did as a section was watch The Verdict with Paul Newman. This, along with my very first assignment in law school, made me question the decision to attend.

The Verdict is a powerful, well-acted, and well-directed film. It is also one of the most prominent examples of the glorification of lawyers violating both their moral and professional duties. This is, to put it mildly, NOT what you want to be inculcating to newbie law students.

The premise is that negligence by doctors caused a young woman, Deborah Ann Kaye, to be in a persistent vegetative state. The burden of caring for her is significant and her sister and brother-in-law elect to sue the hospital on Kaye's behalf, in the hope that they can procure a settlement that will pay for her care. They hire an alcoholic attorney (Newman), who uncovers the negligence that led to Kaye's injuries. Eventually it becomes obvious to the defendants that the jig is up. They offer Newman a generous settlement. This is what his clients wanted all along. Kaye's care would be guaranteed. However, taking the settlement means there would be no public exposure of the hospital's negligence. Instead of presenting the settlement offer to his clients, Newman turns it down immediately, placing the fate of an entire family in the hands of a drunken has-been. He's taking this to trial!

Of course, Newman wins the case after a dramatic courtroom scene and Kaye's care is safe. But the entire point of an attorney's representation is to act on behalf of his client, in that client's interests. Not the interests of the wider community (unless the client agrees). Not in the interests of himself and his desire for redemption. If the client wants to take the money, that is their choice. You cannot take that decision away from them by concealing a settlement offer and remain an ethical and responsible member of the bar.

I don't know why anyone would think that this is a good thing to show new law students. Ideally, you should show them something that presents them with information leading to a counter-intuitive conclusion (e.g. an attorney making a decision in accordance with his ethical duties that seems wrong to an outsider but which ultimately is the right thing to do). It's not Birth of a Nation or anything, but it's a bad movie and if you are an attorney and like it you should feel bad.
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