Prof. Norwood Teaches Legal Concepts to High School Students in College Prep Program

Suppose you purchase a chocolate candy bar at a convenience store. You start to eat the candy. Almost immediately, you feel a crawling sensation in your mouth. You spit out the chocolate. Lo and behold, something is moving in it! Maggots! You get sick to your stomach and vomit. Eventually, you want to hold someone responsible for this sickening experience. Do you have a case? What kinds of questions does your attorney need to ask to answer that question?

This was how Kimberly Norwood, professor of law and professor of African & African American studies at Washington University School of Law, started her class with the 29 high school students visiting Washington University this summer as part of the university’s first residential College Prep Program. The multi-year initiative will prepare high-achieving high school students with limited financial resources for college.

Over the next 90 minutes, Norwood walked the enthusiastic students through the steps necessary to determine the relevant questions and through the levels of answers required, depending on the strategy chosen. The mock class became a powerful introduction to the rigorous logical thinking required in law school.

“Do we even have an injury?” Norwood asked. “What is it? What caused it? Who caused it? How do we know?” Hands shot up with suggestions. Virtually all of the students believed getting sick to one’s stomach was an injury, but who would they sue? The convenience store owner or the candy manufacturer? What about the company that provided the wrapping to the candy bar?

“Of course, determining who the defendant is, or who they are, is crucial,” Norwood said. “Not only does the system want you to hold the proper tortfeasor accountable, but who the defendant is might also help to decide some procedural matters, like which state or court your attorney might consider filing your lawsuit.” Shifting gears, Norwood said, “But let’s get back to the real question. Other than being grossed out and emptying the contents of your stomach on the sidewalk, do you have a ‘real’ injury?”

“Maybe you have emotional damages, like now you’re afraid to go into convenience stores,” one of the students suggested.

“Maybe,” said Norwood, “but that can be really hard to prove. And should our system compensate people for that? Why?”

Norwood then discussed all the other things that a lawyer would have to learn about to handle such a case. “For example, when this lawyer went to law school, he or she probably never thought they’d have to understand the life span of a maggot, but that’s exactly what he or she would have to study for this case. Suppose, for example, that we learn that maggots are born and transform within seven days, and the candy was delivered two weeks earlier? This will give pretty strong evidence regarding whether the maggots came from the candy manufacturer’s warehouse or were born in the convenience store.”

After some discussion, Norwood turned to the recent traffic accident in the news involving a tired truck driver and comedian Tracy Morgan. The class became intently focused trying to understand and consider all of the potential questions involved in that crash, including whether the driver or the driver’s employer should be held liable; questions about the actions of the driver of the van comedian Morgan was riding in; and questions about future medical damages, pain, suffering, expected life expectancies, future loss wages, the potential earnings of all of the people injured in the crash, and more.

After the class, Phallen Briggs, a student at Metro Academic and Classical High School, said she appreciated the fresh perspective Norwood provided.

“I enjoyed the class a lot,” she said. “It was interesting to see how lawyers really think about the cases they take and how they have to go over everything with a fine-tooth pick and comb."

Timothy Fox
Summer 2014