Professor Recognized for Lifetime Impact in Mass Torts

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Francis E. McGovern, a Duke professor of law generally recognized as the top expert in the field of mass torts, was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American College of Civil Trial Mediators last October.

The Orlando-based College is an honorary society of mediators that focuses on resolving civil litigation. Leaders of the group said they could think of few scholars or practitioners to match McGovern in his advancement of the theory and practice of alternative dispute resolution. “Francis is the author and father of an awful lot of literature and an awful lot of pragmatic exercises in the field of negotiating mass torts,” said Rodney Max, president of the organization. “He never ceases to amaze me with his energy, synergy, and his ability to be creative and come up with creative solutions.”

Previous recipients of the award have included The Honorable Warren Knight, founder of the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Service, and Roger Fisher of Harvard Law School, author of Getting to Yes, the seminal popular book on reaching consensus.

The award was not the first time McGovern has been recognized for his work. Among many other accolades, he is the only person ever to win both the Outstanding Practical Achievement Award and the Original Article Award in the same year (1986) from CPR (formerly the Center for Public Resources). A stream of awards has come his way since then for his work in alternative dispute resolution and related fields.

For more than 20 years, McGovern has worked on some of the nation’s best-known mass claim litigations, often with tens of thousands of tort claims arising from a single disaster or product liability issue. As a court-appointed special master or neutral expert, he has developed solutions in cases involving DDT toxic exposure in Alabama, the A.H. Robins/Dalkon Shield bankruptcy, and silicon gel breast implant litigation as well as his current work involving asbestos.

In the Dalkon Shield litigation, he helped organize and implement the distribution of the $2.4 billion trust established to compensate 100,000 women who had sued the maker of the device. “I have attempted to develop conceptual approaches to resolving disputes and then to test those concepts in the context of actual disputes,” McGovern said. “This process involves a dynamic feedback between theory and practice in order to advance our understanding of the most efficacious means of resolving disputes.”

His students say McGovern’s deep knowledge and skill readily translate into a powerful classroom experience. “He has an amazing combination of practical and academic experience,” said Collin Cox ’01, now an associate at Williams & Connolly based in Washington, D.C. “He brings that to the classroom every day. I took two of his classes as a third-year student, because you just can’t find anyone more involved with class actions or mass tort litigation.”

McGovern said he always tries to bring his practical experience into his lessons. “By participating in the real-world application of dispute resolution theory, I can provide a richer texture to the fabric of instruction for our students. At the same time, one of the major byproducts of this interaction between theory and practice is the ability to raise the profile of Duke Law School among other academics and practitioners.”

McGovern, who came to Duke Law in 1997, also shares his insights with lawyers, judges, students and scholars across the country through an ambitious schedule of speeches and other presentations.

For the early part of 2003, McGovern had planned about a dozen presentations that would carry him from Nevada to New York. Those include speeches for the Standing Committee on Federal Rules of the Judicial Conference of the United States; the annual meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices; the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools; as well as presentations at the University of Tennessee, DePaul University, Ohio State University, Pepperdine University and other schools.

A version of this story also will be forthcoming in the spring edition of Duke Law Magazine.