BLOOMINGTON Illinois Wesleyan University students learning the ins and outs of trial law had their day in court Friday applying skills to a high-profile case that hasn’t even hit Chicago courtrooms yet.
The December jetliner crash at Chicago’s Midway Airport that left 6-year-old Joshua Woods dead served as the trial backdrop for IWU professor Robert Kearney’s students. A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jet skidded off the runway into nearby traffic, hitting a vehicle and killing Joshua.
IWU senior Taaj Abdur-Rahman remembers the day the real accident occurred.
The Homewood resident, who was home for winter break, said it was all over the television news. So, when class started in January, she quickly decided to join the legal team representing the Wood family.
“I’m very hesitant to fly into Midway now,” she said of what she’s learned during months of research for the class. “It’s right in the middle of a neighborhood.”
On Friday, she stood before McLean County Circuit Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb and cross-examined the man portraying the Southwest Airlines pilot involved in the accident. Bill Walsh, an IWU business management professor who also happens to be a pilot in real life, took the role.
“Did you initiate the (reverse) thruster?” she asked Walsh, continuing to pepper him with questions about the condition of the runway, the weather conditions and whether he considered the site safe for landing.
Though she’s not planning to attend law school, Abdur-Rahman said what she learned about the legal process this spring is bound to help her in any career.
Of the 22 students taking part in Friday’s trial, about half plan to attend law school.
T.J. Wessel of Chandlerville is one. He says the trial experience will give him an advantage over other students.
Kearney’s legal strategies course is much more than a mock trial, he said.
“It’s different than any class taught, here or on any other campus, even law schools, because it’s not a canned case. It’s based on a real case that hasn’t happened yet,” said Kearney.
Students file complaints, appear before the judge throughout the semester in status hearings, take depositions and take care of other legal paperwork. They also learn the enormous workload of research in preparing for a trial, he said.
Kearney chooses a high-profile case with a simple underlying principle but complex facts. In this case the argument is negligence.
In years past, the course has used tobacco cases and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for mock trials
Most students in Kearney’s class said they walked away from the course excited about the legal process but humbled by the amount preparation needed for a trial.
Justin Gorson, a senior from Hawthorn Woods, was so affected by the course that he’s changed his mind about his career and decided to apply for law school, said his parents.
“We wanted to come down and see what this was all about,” said his mother, Debbie Gorson. She and her husband spent Friday in Bloomington to watch the mock trial.
“I can’t believe how interesting all these witnesses are,” she said.
In real life, lawsuits have been filed by two injured passengers and the family of Joshua Wood. That case is probably two years away from trial in Cook County Circuit Court.
Both plaintiffs say that Boeing, Southwest Airlines and the city of Chicago should be held accountable for negligence in the case.
The nine-member jury deliberated about an hour the time limit set by the judge before finding Southwest solely liable. The jury ordered Southwest to pay the Wood family $10 million and to pay the court costs and medical bills but no other damages for the two passengers.
They decided the airplane manufacturer and the city weren’t liable.
“Whether or not (these students) go to law school, this gives them a litigation experience that’s more realistic than a courtroom drama,” he said.