How to Sue: A Primer from North Country

Some people go see courtroom movies for entertainment purposes, I go for litigation tips. Which is why I could recently be found at North Country, a flick just shown at my educational institution in serendipitous tandem with the Oscars.

I learned a lot watching North Country, not least because of a particularly bold trial strategy choice made by the defendant mining company in the climactic courtroom scene. By discussing it, I warn you, I’ll be revealing the “surprise” of the movie.

To me, the big surprise was the company’s approach. Not everyone would try to discredit a plaintiff by putting on evidence that said plaintiff was both violently and statutorily raped in high school by one of her teachers. For one thing, this fifteen years prior event might not seem that relevant to whether the plaintiff had to put up with a culture and an environment of sexual harassment at work, or was a credible witness. For another, putting on this evidence might generate sympathy for the plaintiff.

But the defendant company definitely had a lot of resources at its disposal, and certainly a very well-dressed lawyer, so I assume that it knew what it was doing. It was, however, hard to keep track with all of the speeches that the lawyers were making during this scene – including the one by plaintiffs’ counsel accusing a witness of being likely to pee on the ice at a skating rink. The judge was keeping control with rulings along the lines of: “it’s unconventional, counsel, but I’ll allow it,” which was understandable, since when he would sustain objections counsel tended to just keep talking anyway.

The best thing about this climactic courtroom scene, though, is that it wasn’t before a jury. It was a Rule 23(c) class certification hearing, definitely the most exciting class certification hearing I’ve ever seen or heard of. I bet, in fact, there’s never been a class certification hearing quite like it.

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