The first class on the first day of law school was torts. The first case we discussed was Hammontree v. Jenner, an action by a shop-owner who had suffered personal injury and damage to her retail bicycle shop when the defendant had an epileptic seizure, lost control of his car and crashed through the wall of plaintiff’s shop. At the time, the holding of the case struck me as unfair; the plaintiff shop-owner was not able to recover damages. The principle was that loss from an accident must lie where it falls, and it mattered not that the defendant was the “instrument of misfortune.” The defendant had no control over his seizure, it was an accident – the defendant was not to blame.
The more cases I read, the more emotionally detached I have been able to become. During the first semester of law school, I struggled with classes like criminal law, because of the stories the cases told, after all, they were not mere stories. As a law student, though, it is essential to look past the emotion and recognize the legal principles. This does not mean the cases are stripped of their human element, but rather, an appreciation of the magnitude of the tragedy must be set-aside for the sake of learning. Yet, in setting aside the emotion, it can be easy to forget that each case in our casebooks represents real people, real stories and real tragedies.
Hammontree v. Jenner came to my life again this week, but this time, it was not printed on the pages of a book. My dear friend, her husband and their 18-month old son were driving to church when a man driving a car next to them on the highway had a heart-attack. His car veered into their mini-van causing the van to roll three times. Their precious son was killed by the accident, her husband grieves, and she remains in critical condition – unaware of her loss. It was an accident, no one is to blame.
The heaviness of the week has made school feel unimportant and trivial. Perhaps there is wisdom to be gleaned in that. It is true that law school is not the most important element of life, yet it is also true that as lawyers, we will play a significant role in people’s lives at moments they suffer tremendous hardship, loss and tragedy. People do not go to court for fun. Lawyers advocate, lawyers counsel, and lawyers facilitate understanding. Hammontree v. Jenner used to be just a case to me, but now it impresses upon me the reality of the material we study. There are human beings behind each page we read, and remembering this simple truth instills in me renewed reverence and sensitivity for this profession. To be dedicated to studying the law while maintaining my appreciation for how fragile life can be is the balance I seek.