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Author(s): Hannah R. Weiser, JD/MBA

Title: Introduction to Business Law Through Film: A Civil Action

Subject: Introduction to Business Law

Activity overview. This activity is designed to introduce students in a business law course to the value of the course and some initial themes in the course and the legal field. It also allows the opportunity to discuss some important legal foundations, such as the law “in reality” being different than the law in movies and tv, as many students are more familiar with. The students will watch a 3- minute video clip from A Civil Action in which a personal injury attorney

(John Travolta, which some of them may still recognize!) wheels a young male, disabled client to a courtroom for a trial against Massachusetts General Hospital. After visible displays of the victim’s injuries and resulting emotions from the jury, a negotiation via post-it notes ensues and the case settles before the opening statements:  Please note there is profanity about 30 seconds in, which can be muted or warned in advance. Also, the video quality via the free YouTube link is fuzzy in the beginning for just a short while.

Ingredients. Access to the Internet or the film, A Civil Action. .The film is a 1998 drama, rated PG-13 with actors including John Travolta and Robert Duvall. Based on the book by Jonathan Harr, centered around a true story of an epic courtroom showdown where two of the nation’s largest corporations were accused of causing the deaths of children from water contamination in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the 1980s.

Running the activity. Before showing the video, discuss the importance of the law and the value of the course. I also like to ask students what some of their favorite legal movies and shows are to get discussion flowing, then to note the difference in what we see on the screen and the real world. Next, I ask the students something similar to the following to consider during the clip: “While the law is very different than what we see on tv and film, some clips help us to illustrate important concepts in this course. For instance, A Civil Action is one of many films and television shows that are centered around the law. As you are watching this clip, consider what you learn about the law from the opening scene?” After showing the video, break the students into small groups of 3-4 student for a quick discussion focusing on this question and then bring the class back together to discuss. Additional questions to provoke further discussion are below under suggestions.

Substitutions:  The exercise can be adopted to a virtual environment by using team-based software such as Zoom or WebEx breakouts or other virtual discussion platform. It can be assigned as an online exercise, as well through online discussions in Blackboard, Canvas, or similar technology. Consider asking students to put key words or takeaways in the online chat or via live poll in class to keep active engagement and to stimulate initial discussion in the online environment.

Suggestions. As the discussion is a back and forth with the students for engagement, additional points and questions to consider are noted below and may include:

  • Most cases settle and they can, at any time until the trial process is really over. A key point is to follow up with why? Students can speak to the cost, time, emotional toll, the harm to a business’ brand via public relations given the public access to the case, and more. Here, I like to note most cases are public and students are often surprised by that. I invite them to visit a court to see a trial in person (see below under follow up).
  • The importance of the decision maker and the answer often being “it depends.” Here, I discuss voir dire and the judge and the importance of the selection process – a key takeaway being “it depends” is often the answer. I note that we will have many discussions in class where perspectives will vary. As a result, depending on the judge, or the juror, there can be a significant difference in the outcome of a case. Note the crying juror. I also ask the students who they would be more sympathetic to – the disabled individual or the business, Massachusetts General Hospital.
  • The courtroom has strategy and theatrics involved. Discuss why “Jan” ties his client’s shoes for him and feeds him water from a straw, for example.
  • The law is not always fair – ask students who is worth the most money in the law based on this clip? Students will note it is a middle-aged white male in the height of his earning power. I like to make a joke about how my little children should be worth the most and ask them why in fact, in the law, they are worth the least? Students should point to the idea of lost wages and the high earning potential in the reasoning here. Here, I ask if there are any musicians in the class then note that if one of them was a professional musician, the loss of a hand would be of more value than my own, as a teacher, like me, losing their hand could still do the job, while it could be difficult for the student to perform.
  • The fairness discussion leads to remedies in the law. We cannot bring someone back to life or solve every injury. We can compensate with money and use punitive damages to punish and deter. Even then, just because you won in court does not mean you will always be able to collect.

Review or follow-up. I have an activity I do with students called “Business Law in Film,” where students can individually, or with a partner, watch a movie or approved tv show (usually a couple episodes) and apply and compare what they see on screen to what we learn in class as a final project during the semester. I invite students to watch this film (and others from clips I show in class) for their project. It serves as a way to “debrief” on the course. I have another project where students are asked to visit a courthouse and explain some of the dispute resolution material from the visit in comparison to what we learn in class.