Friday, September 21, 2012

Worst Legal Drama: No.1 The Verdict

The worst legal drama?  No competition.  The Verdict (1982).

 Paul Newman is at his best  He is sensational as a once brilliant but now broken-down lawyer trying to find redemption for a career lost in bourbon and beer.  (Click here for his beer & an egg scene.)

James Mason is deliciously evil as the lawyer for the Diocese and its hospital.  Character actor Milo O'Shea is perfect as the smarmy politico Judge Hoyle.

The Verdict garnered five Academy Award nominations and is often listed among the top legal movies of all time. Click here for the movie trailer.

But legally, this movie is hideous.

So hideous in fact that it is used to teach legal ethics - not from a positive view, but from the standpoint of how many violations exist which would have gotten both lawyers and the judge disbarred, and maybe put in jail.

Let's start with the big one.  Newman's character, Frank Gavin, is given a large (for the time) settlement offer of $200,000.  Determined to go to trial,  Gavin turns down the offer without ever consulting with his client.

Rules of Professional Responsibility require that any settlement offer be conveyed to the client.  After all, it is the client, not the lawyer, who must make the decision on settlement.  Lawyers make recommendations, but clients make the decision.  Short of taking client money from a trust account, breach of this rule is among the most serious offenses a lawyer can commit.

But the settlement offer presents at least two other violations.  First, the judge is aware of this violation.  The offer is made and turned down in chambers in the presence of the judge.  He knows Gavin did not consult his client, and lawyers and judges are both required to report knowing violations of the Rules of Professional Responsibility.

Second, Gavin's client finds out about the offer from the attorney for the Diocese & Hospital.  Communication by the Diocese/Hospital's lawyer with the plaintiff  is another major ethics violation.  Lawyers cannot communicate directly with represented parties.  Again, this is a major violation that can result in disbarment.

That brings us to the next violation.  Gavin misrepresents himself and gets a hospital nurse to disclose the current location of the nurse who was on duty when the malpractice occurred.  As mentioned above, lawyers are prohibited from communicating directly with represented persons. While there is a complex legal question about how far that representation extends when it comes to corporations, Gavin's deception and contact with the nurse is very questionable.

Next we get to the hospital lawyer, Ed Concannon, impeccably played by James Mason.  Concannon pays off Gavin's secretary for inside information on Gavin's strategy, makes Gavin's key medical expert witness disappear, and preps his witnesses to give knowing false testimony. And then there is the built-in conflict in representing both the hospital and the doctor, but that pales in comparison to the other ethical issues.

As jaundiced as one might be about the legal profession, this just goes too far.  Any of these incidents could result in disbarment.

Finally, there is the judge.  Clearly favoring the Diocese, the judge has improper ex parte conversations with both Mason (friendly) and Gavin (threatening).  He clearly shows his prejudice from the bench and in his rulings, which are both wrong on the law and clearly slanted to the defendant hospital.

But the movie is not without its legal accuracies.

First, any trial lawyer worth his salt can drink a shot of bourbon without ever listing the glass from the bar (the movie's opening scene).

Second, when the jury comes in with its surprising verdict, the judge correctly instructs the jurors that they are not limited by the amount of damages requested by the Plaintiff.

So enjoy the wonderful performances, the building tension, the triumphant conclusion. But just because it has the feel of "gritty realism," don't think it bears any resemblance what actually goes on in a courtroom.

*Next week:  My five best legal dramas.

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