Remembering Tom Lambert

Michael Rustad

 

Turn him to any cause of policy

The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,

Familiar as his garter: that when he speaks

The air, a charter'd libertine, is still,

And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears,

To steal his sweet and honey sentences

Henry V ñ I i

 

I first met Tom Lambert when I enrolled in his over-enrolledseminar in products liability in 1984. Tom's classes were standing roomonly. Tom held his seminars in the largest classrooms and every seat wasfilled. His classes were well worth the price of admission. No one leftearly. Tom was one of the most gifted speakers and a most kinetic classroomorator. Tom had an ability to humanize each of his featured cases. Heused cases to illustrate whether strict liability extended to unusual partiesor situations. Should implied warranty without privity be applied in acase where a twist-off aluminum cap on a soft drink bottle blew off andstruck the plaintiff in the eye? Tom reminded us that it was the elderlyplaintiff's only good eye and her only hobby was knitting.

I still remember the unfortunate flu patient whose pajamatop was ignited by volatile vapors of Ben Gay used to illustrate the needfor manufacturers to warn of known dangers. When the plaintiff attemptedto light a cigarette, the vapors of Ben-Gay ointment ignited with resultingflash fire under the plaintiff's pajama top. Tom often taught his productsliability case during the noon hour or afternoon hour. Tom delighted indescribing bad food product cases. There was a twinkle in Tom's eye whenhe discussed how food products yielded the unexpected: a human toe in aplug of tobacco, a worm in a Baby Ruth bar, or a pin in a slice of blueberrypie. These graphic accounts helped to discourage students from consumingfood in his classroom. He used these cases to distinguish between manufacturingdefect cases and design cases. Tom was able to humanize the bloodless numbersthat go into an award for compensatory damages. He challenged us to "placea price on a child's life."

One of Tom's stunning achievements as a teacher was toremind students how religious and moral principles were expressed throughtort law. Tom was evangelical about the civil religion of tort law andthe rights of tort victims to fair compensation. In his classroom discussionof Dillon v. Legg, he described the public policy for recognizing bystanderliability: Those who have visited St. Peter's will recall the stunningPieta positioned to the right as you enter the basilica, a universal symbolof the sorrowing mother. It projects a stark truth: not all-grieving mothersmourning their dead children are accident fakers.

Ed Bander, I believe, published the only poem ever publishedin the Suffolk University Law Review and it was about Tom: the poet laureateof tort law. Ed, who was Tom's student in the early 1950s at Boston UniversityLaw School, captures Tom's persona as a teacher:

Hear this all ye sisters and brothers

Our vision is from the shoulders of others.

And of all of those who bear these loads

Tom Lambert is the Colossus of Rhodes

Hear his voice stern, clipped, then mild,

"Where is the lobby for the unborn child?"

Or Expounding on a Samaritan Rescue,

Reciting lines from Eugene Ionescu

Law Professors may blush unseen

And waste their voices on ears not keen

But Lambert's lectures have no fear

Particularly when he gets in full gear,

And you listened to his rhythmic beat

It was like listening to Avon's bard,

I assure you Homer wouldn't nod

Whose were the deepest pockets he'd muse,

Was there an insurance company to accuse?

And if a product were but a shell

Then he'd orate on Cardozo's Citadel.

Tom was great at being Socratic.

Woe to the answer that was dogmatic.

Facts were king; and theory was queen,

There was no average, there was no mean.

He saw the forest and he saw the trees.

He'd wax about beautiful injuries.

On Rylands v. Fletcher you try and cram

Because Tom knew how to give a damn.

The Grand Manner was Tom's way

Down Law's path he would not stray.

A seamless web; he wove each strand

Hoping to reach the promised land.

We loved you Tom for more than words

You lifted us like the song of birds.

Above all was the message you sent

The life's meaning was your precedent.

Tom's compassionate tort law was a jurisprudence of hope. He possessed an abiding faith in a tort law that was common law for thecommon good. Tom's lectures were wry, laden with irony and wit. Each lecturewas a treasure trove of literary references, poetry and humor. Tom wasthe only teacher I knew who could compare Balzac to the dangers of above-groundswimming pools. To say that Tom was a good teacher would be like sayingthat Nomar Garciparra has a way with the bat.

Tom served as a mentor to me during and after law school. I sought Tom's advice on whether I should move my young family to Coloradoto be a clerk for a federal judge or work immediately for a Boston law firm. This was a difficult decision for me because federal clerkships paid theprincely sum of $24,000. Tom told me that a clerkship with Judge Doyleat the Tenth Circuit would help me achieve my dream of becoming a law teacher. Tom wrote a letter of reference for my LL.M application to Harvard andprovided me with useful materials for my LL.M thesis on punitive damages. I continued to receive Tom's sure-footed career guidance while I was anassociate at Boston's Foley, Hoag & Eliot. Tom played an instrumentalrole in recruiting me to Suffolk in the Fall of 1988. His one-line referenceto David Sargent was a hand-written note: "Grab this Guy!"

Suffolk University Law School has been an ideal environmentfor me to develop in as a teacher and as a scholar. Tom Lambert is theonly Suffolk professor who always had a messier office than mine. He wasmy role model. My office is next door to Tom Lambert's in the new building. During my first few years in the old building, my office was close by Tom'son the first floor. Tom did not need a filing system because he could rememberevery case citation from memory. He had a gentle way of nurturing newlyminted law professors. In the Fall of 1988, he sent me a short hand-writtennote: "About that punitive damages manuscript in your drawer, betterlet it ripen or it will rot!" He accompanied his note with a descriptionof a grant application for The Roscoe Pound Foundationís grants competition. And that was the origin of my academic life as a torts scholar.

Tom helped me ripen my Harvard LL.M thesis into a proposalwhich won the nationwide Roscoe Pound grants competition. One of the hugeobstacles that I faced in carrying out my research was that there is nonationwide system for reporting trial verdicts. Tom wrote a letter to thetrial bar urging them to provide me with court documents and interviewson punitive damages cases. Tom believed that the empirical study wouldendorse a role for punitive damages. Tom's support was key to the successof my study. I had one of the highest response rates in the history oflaw and social science. One trial lawyer told me: "Tom Lambert'sendorsement of your project lit a rather large fire under me to take thetime to participate in the study!" I am deeply indebted to Tom Lambertfor his steadfast support of the project. He advised me that my study wouldbe placed under a microscope and needed to be rigorous to withstand attacksfrom highly partisan tort reformers. Despite Tom Lambert's long associationof ATLA, he stressed fidelity to scholarly integrity. In his letter ofendorsement to the trial lawyer, he quoted Louis Brandeis, "The lawarises out of the fact." He was convinced that the attempts by tortreformers to dismantle our civil litigation system could best be counteredby careful empirical study.

Tom was not only a teacher, mentor and colleague, but alsoa close friend. I was his guest at a black tie dinner held in his honorat the Georgetown Club. Tom was the keynote speaker and the room was filledwith household names including Ralph Nader and at least three United StatesSenators. Tom arranged for me to sit at a table with Senator Howell Heflinof Alabama. Tom had undergone major surgery only a few months before andI was concerned whether he had the strength to give a keynote speech. Istill remember Tom struggling to the podium and I hoped against hope thathe could complete his speech. Tom gained strength and gave a 30-minutespeech which was a model of excellence. At the end of his speech, he receivedthunderous applause and a standing ovation.

During the final year of Tom's illness, I spent many happyevenings with Tom and Elizabeth in their gorgeous Pinckney Street apartment. I frequently brought some of Tom's favorite students such as Jim Richardsand Boris Kagan. Elizabeth would bring us a tray of long-necked beer andwe would talk torts for hours. Ed Bander and I enjoyed bringing Tom someof his favorite chocolate cake from a Charles Street deli. These visitsduring Tom's final months were memories that I will always treasure.

I hope that all of you will remember that Tom's life inthe law was filled with hope and optimism. Tom saw the law as an instrumentto right wrongs and to create a better world. One of his favorite quotesfrom Justice Holmes was that: "The truth is, that the law is alwaysapproaching and ever reaching consistency. It is forever adopting new principlesfrom life at one end and it always retains old ones from history at theother, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off. It will becomeentirely consistent only when it ceases to grow." His vision of tortlaw is an ideal whose time has come. In the words of Macauley, "asingle breaker may recede, but the tide is coming in."

Tom's commitment to his students and to his life in thelaw means that his influence is a rising and not a setting sun.

 

Professor of Law & Director of High Technology LawProgram, Suffolk University Law School.

 

68 Cal.2d 728, 441 P.2d 912, 69 Cal. Rptr. 72 (1968).
ofessor of Law & Director of High Technology LawProgram, Suffolk University Law School.

 

68 Cal.2d 728, 441 P.2d 912, 69 Cal. Rptr. 72 (1968).