Frank Vandall of Emory Law School can remember staying up very late when he was a law student, plowing through untold pages of material only to admit later that he "hadn't a clue as to what I read." That scene is replayed by countless law students each year, and Vandall is out to change things. He and co-author Ellen Wertheimer of Villanova University School of Law have written a new torts casebook for first-year law students that is remarkable in several ways, but most visibly different is its length: at under 800 pages, it is much shorter than traditional torts textbooks being used today.
It's little wonder that torts casebooks have grown to gargantuan lengths in recent years, said Vandall, a member of theEmory law faculty since 1970. As the body of law has grown, law school curricula have become richer and expanded, encompassing elective courses such as environmental law, medical malpractice and workers' compensation. To make room for increasing electives, credit hours for the first-year torts course have been cut nearly in half. Meanwhile, the number of cases available for study in torts introductory courses has continued to grow, as casebook authors continue to add new materials. As a result, many of the texts are 1,200 to 1,300 pages and "often the material in the last third of the book is never covered," Vandall said.
"Our intent was to craft a book that's the appropriate length for a four- or five-credit course," he noted. To do that, he and Wertheimer had to perform some judicious editing. They omitted chapters on topics such as nuisance, defamation, privacy, civil rights, misrepresentation and others, but included discussions of such subjects in main cases or note cases throughout the book. "Interestingly enough, nobody has criticized us for that," said Vandall. "I think everyone realizes that these books had become unmanageable and that this was the right way to go."
The book reflects Vandall's and Wertheimer's classroom philosophy that students should think about the facts and the law, instead of "just reading, reading, reading. Not all of my colleagues would agree. Some of them feel the more you read the better; my feeling is the more you think the better."
For that reason, said Vandall, the book "reflects the challenge and complexity of modern personal injury law by including cases throughout the chapters that are on the cutting edge of law and science." Although the book covers many of the "old chesnuts" of personal injury law and simple torts such as automobile collisions, students will find a wealth of cases "that involve serious questions of science and substantial problems of 'cause in fact' so that they will be comfortable with the real cases they get in practice," said Vandall. Since many students "are going into large firm practice and sophisticated tort practice," they need to be exposed to cases where complex legal issues are the norm.
A chapter on toxic torts is included for that reason, said Vandall. "There might be a pesticide that is introduced to the market that is very dangerous to the user; there might be a prescription drug that has very serious side effects; a manufacturer might sell property that is polluted with toxic substances, and the question is, who is going to pay for the clean-up? Our book exposes those kinds of issues that were often passed over in earlier texts," said Vandall.
"We've tried not to take one side of the law and history debate, or the law and economics debate," said Vandall, so that professors will be encouraged "to supplement the book with whatever she or he feels works best for them." Staying neutral also recognizes the fact that many law faculty today have dual degrees and are more than qualified to present broader philosophical issues to their students.
To help students get a handle on the issues, the book's publisher offers a companion CD/ROM; for slightly more than the book price, students can buy a program that gives them access to the entire LEXIS/NEXIS resources available online. With a few keystrokes, students with laptop computers can get full texts of cases being discussed in class, find out any new decisions based on the case or even determine whether the Supreme Court has considered it.
"The point is not how can I get more data, but how can I get on top of the data that's coming in front of me," said Vandall. "Our book is an attempt to pick the data carefully, get students to pay attention to it, to think about it and to learn as much as they can from it."