Lawyer Movies and the Oscars

Sunday, February 22, 2015, is Oscar night. So I was talking with my wife, Sheila, and we were discussing the upcoming Oscars and our favorite movies this year (Two of my favorites are Whiplash and Birdman). This led to a discussion of my favorite lawyer movies. Here they are:
The Verdict, Class Action, A Civil Action, and My Cousin Vinny. As an Alameda personal injury lawyer for over thirty years, each of these movies touches me in a special way and for different reasons.

The Verdict is the classic medical malpractice case involving attorney Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a once successful personal injury lawyer, who has obviously fallen on hard times, pitted against the erudite, Ed Concannon (James Mason). A family comes to his office because their daughter has suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the local hospital’s anesthesiologist’s negligence. The movie shows how hospitals and other medical professionals can and do make mistakes, and the efforts that are sometimes made to cover up these mistakes (altering medical records in this case). In the end, Galvin obtains a multi million dollar verdict for his client. Interestingly, in the real world, under California law, the verdict would be limited to $250,000.00 for pain and suffering due to the cap on medical malpractice awards in our State (Civil Code Section 3333.2).

Class Action is a wonderful movie involving a  products liability claim. A car manufacturer sells station wagons which it knows has a defect in the electrical system which can cause its vehicles to explode if they are struck in the rear, while the turn signal is activated. The protagonist, Jedidiah Tucker Ward (Gene Hackman) takes on the manufacturer and obtains justice for his client, after battling with a well heeled law firm, financed by an auto manufacturer who spares no expense to defend the case. The movie offers a chilling look at how products liability cases are defended by large corporations, and the dirty tricks played by their lawyers. It also illustrates the deplorable corporate mentality of putting profits over public safety, a theme that unfortunately plays out in real life every day.

A Civil Action is a true story. The movie presents a chilling description of a class action environmental lawsuit. People in a small, localized area, near Boston, were developing leukemia and dying. Their surviving families sued two huge corporations accused of knowingly dumping pollutants into the water supply which caused the cancers. The plaintiff’s lawyer, portrayed by John Travolta, risks everything he has, his home, his entire law practice, and his sanity, to obtain justice for his clients.The movie demonstrates, once again, the Atilla the Hun type practices employed by large corporations and their lawyers. It also displays the tremendous financial and emotional risks that plaintiffs lawyers take on whenever they represent individuals against powerful corporate interests.

How could any list of great lawyer movies leave out My Cousin Vinny? True, it doesn’t have the gravamen of the above movies, but what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in humor. It’s one of the funniest attorney movies you will ever see. Joe Peschi, plays a lawyer straight out of law school, who takes on the grim prospect of representing his nephew in a murder trial. Pessci’s girl friend, the inimitable Marisa Tomei is the best expert witness you would ever want to see. She’s sassy and won’t back down from her opinions. The scene with her on the witness stand is worth the price of admission.

So there you have my votes for my favorite lawyer movies. I hope you enjoy your night at the Oscars this year.

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