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UK Law Professor Recognized for Class-Action Expertise

Photo of Mary Davisby Jeff Worley and Sarah Ligon

Mary Davis admits that in law school she must have missed the class where the professor discussed the importance of being able to drive a large truck.

"A few years after graduation, I found myself defending the manufacturer of luxury yachts in litigation involving a variety of accidents allegedly from design or manufacturing flaws," says Davis, a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Law. "I ended up driving a truckload of yacht parts to the deposition, not the kind of thing I envisioned doing when I was in law school."

Davis's law career has taken her from college to the real world of courts and bitter confrontation and back again. Davis graduated from the Wake Forest University School of Law in 1985 and began to specialize in product liability litigation. She worked for six years in Virginia and North Carolina before returning to the university environment she enjoyed so much as a student. "I know it may be hard to believe, but I loved law school," she says. "I found it to be constantly stimulating and always thought I would like to teach one day." Davis, the new Stites & Harbison Professor, has been at UK since 1991. She teaches product liability and mass tort litigation.

Davis says she remembers exactly when her interest in law began. "I was in high school. My mother told me a story one evening about my grandmother, who immigrated from Italy to Connecticut to marry," says Davis. "It was an arranged marriage, and my grandmother was just 16 then." Davis's grandmother had five young children when her husband died, and soon after was confronted with a staggering amount of legal paperwork and fees. About 50 percent of her husband's estate ended up in her attorney's bank account.

"That was shocking to me," says Davis. "I thought, well, that was obviously unfair. It was an impetus to start thinking about going to law school."

During her law studies, Davis became increasingly interested in mass tort law. "Those are cases that involve large numbers of people—class action—all being affected by the same type of defect," she explains. In her practice, she covered cases involving a variety of products, from asbestos to cars to barbecue gas grills; most, she says, were complex and amazingly time-consuming.

"During my defense of a large electrical equipment manufacturing company in litigation involving asbestos-related injuries, I became convinced that there must be a better way to resolve disputes involving large numbers of people injured by the same course of conduct," Davis says. "My experience with that litigation gave me insights into my scholarship on class-action resolution of large-scale litigation."

She explains that at the time the law firm had enormous stacks of paperwork—legal filings—that came in every day in the handling of over 2,000 cases nationwide. Davis spent a lot of her time simply reviewing documents and managing paralegals to keep from being overwhelmed by the number of cases. "Much of the litigation at that level is administrative, and that's why I believe that class actions can be a useful tool to resolve such cases," she says. "The one-on-one method of adjudicating such cases is simply not feasible anymore."

Davis believes that mass tort class action should not simply be a device to settle cases. "A class-action determination of the liability of a company or companies for product-defect-related injuries could be useful in two ways—providing closure that victims need as to the question of responsibility, and determining responsibility that can be applied to pending cases," she says. These cases, she adds, can then be evaluated on the causal connection between the product and the injury, and on the victim's damages.

"Most product manufacturers fear class action because of the sheer size of what is at stake—large damages," she says. "If we separate the liability determination from the damages determination, that fear should be at least partially alleviated and the assessment of damages can proceed in the normal way, on a case-by-case basis. The way the current system works encourages lawyers to try to resolve tens of thousands of cases in full at one time, and product companies naturally rebel at that because of the enormous amount of financial exposure. Until the class action is used more as a liability-determining device and not a settlement device, cases will not be resolved efficiently."

A related area that interests Davis is the problem of how well juries assess technological information and scientific data presented in a courtroom. With the technological explosion, bewildering to many of us, can we trust a jury of our peers to understand the issues?

"Some lawyers and law professors believe we could do away with the jury system in complex cases and let 'experts' handle them, but we lose a lot of involvement of very capable people in society whose opinions I think we undervalue by telling them they can't handle the complex cases. In my experience, a jury can handle many complex cases because they bring a wealth of background to a case."

She believes that the system could be improved, though, by a much greater use of neutral experts rather than those paid for by either party. "That is the real problem with technically complex cases—the parties bring in 'hired guns' to give the jury biased information, and the jury may find it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. I would endorse the greater use of neutral experts to assist, but not take over, the jury."

Davis's expertise and scholarship in the product-liability area has recently been recognized nationally—she was elected to the American Law Institute in May 2000. Members are selected on the basis of professional achievement and demonstrated interest in the improvement of the law, according to the institute's new members guide.

"As far as my work with the institute goes, because of my background, I'll be involved in reviewing the state of tort law to assist in the institute's project to revise what we call the restatement of the law of torts," Davis explains. "I also plan to be involved in a project focused on international recognition of judgments."

In the meantime, Davis will continue to do what she loves best—teach. "This is the greatest job in the world," she says. "To evaluate these fascinating issues, to help someone learn about this system that is so fundamental to our society, to have the opportunity to work with the brightest future legal minds (our students at UK can compete on par with anybody)—it's incredibly gratifying."

Editor's Note: John Rogers, who teaches international law at the UK College of Law, was also elected to the American Law Institute last spring. Other current and former UK law professors who are members of the institute include Allan Vestal, dean; Thomas Lewis, professor emeritus; and Paul Oberst, professor emeritus.