Former Yale Law School professor and one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork filed suit against the Yale Club of New York on Thursday, citing injuries sustained while speaking at the alumni social club last summer.
Bork, 80, who is seeking $1 million in damages, is claiming that he fell while trying to step onto a dais to speak at a June 6, 2006, event hosted by New Criterion magazine. The absence of a handrail or stairs caused him to fall, striking his leg on the dais and his head on a heat register, the suit claims. Over the past year, Bork has suffered “excruciating pain” and undergone extensive medical treatment and surgery to address the resulting hematoma on his left leg, according to the suit.
Yale Club of New York spokesman Tim Hill declined to comment, as the club had not yet received the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
According to the Associated Press, the suit blames the Yale Club for “wanton, willful and reckless disregard for the safety of its guests.”
Bork taught at the law school from 1962 to 1982, taking leaves of absence to serve in Washington as Solicitor General and acting Attorney General. He left the faculty when he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court, but his bid for the Court was rejected by Senate Democrats who took issue with his conservative judicial record.
Law School professor Peter Schuck said the central point of contention in the case will likely be proving whether or not the Yale Club was negligent in failing to provide stairs to the dais. Bork will try to prove that the club violated a well-established custom of providing stairs, he said, while the club will likely counter by asserting that there was no such custom, that the accident was Bork’s fault, or that he assumed the risk of falling.
“He will probably have to try to overcome two defenses,” said Schuck, who includes tort law among his major fields of teaching. “One is comparative fault, which would be based on the idea that even if Yale was negligent, he was also negligent in having observed the height of the dais and then not asking for assistance, such as steps, to reduce the risk. The other defense is assumption of risk, Yale’s claim being that he observed the risk and decided knowingly to take it without assistance.”
Bork may have a case if he can argue that he did not notice the height of the dais because he was distracted or in conversation at that moment, Schuck said.
Yale law professors testified both for and against Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, and the perceived lack of support from his former school has caused him bitterness since the controversy, some professors said.
Schuck, who was on the Yale Law School faculty with Bork for a very brief period from 1979 to 1980, said he believes Bork should have been confirmed for the Court seat on the basis of his intellectual merits and academic work. But he said Bork has harbored a grudge against the law school since the confirmation battle.
“I think his having elevated his defeat into a now 20-year crusade of resentment and fury seems rather churlish,” Schuck said. “I certainly sympathize with his anger in having been defeated in his bid for a seat he had every reason to believe he deserved, but I think that this is in the nature of modern-style high Supreme Court nomination politics, and he should get over it.”
During the Watergate scandal, Bork was the Justice Department official who, under President Richard Nixon’s orders, fired a special prosecutor who was investigating the White House after the attorney general and his assistant refused to do so. Bork is also considered one of the fathers of the tort reform movement.