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Court Takes Up Suit against Friar Laurence

Shakespeare Theatre Company logoFollowing the funerals and burials of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and Capulets sought ways to honor the memories of their children and to make peace for the first time in generations. They immediately began planning for and trying to finance Juliet’s “statue of pure gold” promised by Lord Montague and the rich statue of Romeo promised by Lord Capulet. To that end, they jointly filed a wrongful death suit against Friar Laurence alleging that his actions and inactions were the proximate cause of the untimely and tragic deaths of both Romeo and Juliet.

Thus begins the legal paperwork filed in the Supreme Court of the Principality of Verona, the first step in the annual Mock Trial hosted by the Bard Association of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in Washington, D.C. The popular event on both the city's theater and judicial calendars is scheduled for Dec. 12 at STC's Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. Opening arguments begin at 7 p.m., a decision is expected at about 8:20 p.m., and a reception follows. General admission tickets are $75 ($20 for students), and pretrial VIP reception tickets are $125.

STC's mock trial annually attracts participation from the District's biggest and brightest legal minds. Presiding over the bench of judges this year is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. The other judges scheduled to appear are Judge Thomas B. Griffith, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; Judge Robert L. Wilkins, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, is counsel for the appellees, Lord and Lady Montague and Lord and Lady Capulet, while Friar Laurence will be represented by Elizabeth B. Prelogar, assistant to the Solicitor General. The marshal of the court is the Marshal of the Supreme Court of the United States, Pamela Talkin.

STC's Mock Trials are traditionally inspired by one of its current or recent productions, and this year's case draws from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which ended its run at the end of October. Nevertheless, the cases, while entertaining theater in their own right, get into entangled legal weeds that only lawyers could conceive. In fact, being a case before the Supreme Court, STC's Mock Trials usually are not an actual trial but a higher court review of an earlier trial, with Shakespeare's script serving as part of the court transcript, allowing the attorneys to quote extensively from the play in arguing their cases.

This lawsuit brought by the Capulets and Montagues against Friar Laurence is no exception, and the best way to explain how is to present the case summary in full. The first paragraph of this news brief starts the summary, with a parenthetical explanation that "injured family members are proper plaintiffs for wrongful death cases in Verona and Friar Laurence’s employment contract required the Church to indemnify him for his actions."

The rest of the summary follows:

"In particular, the lawsuit contended that Friar Laurence engaged in a number of negligent, reckless, and intentional acts and should have been reasonably aware of the risks of his actions. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Friar Laurence: (1) should have devised far better ways to delay the wedding of Juliet and Paris (e.g., by declaring a 30-day period of mourning for Tybalt) which would have allowed time for a reconciliation with Romeo; (2) should not have administered a restricted substance to Juliet or, at a minimum, used a less powerful dose of the sleeping medicine to allow for a margin of error to assure Juliet would awaken before Romeo’s arrival; (3) should have used a less fallible means of sending word of his plan to Romeo or should have had a back-up plan (e.g., a guard at the vault); (4) should have foreseen Romeo’s reaction to Juliet’s supposed death, if the potion went awry; and (5) should have known how Juliet would react to the death of her young husband and not left her alone with his body. All of these actions, the accusers allege, were beneath the reasonable duty of care for anyone, especially a priest.

"Friar Laurence pled in defense that the enmity between the Montagues and Capulets caused these tragic deaths. He argued that his actions were neither negligent nor wrongful, but were intended to prevent Romeo and Juliet from carrying out their separately stated intentions of committing suicide, a grievous sin in the eyes of the Church. Friar Laurence stated that it was unreasonable pressure and expectations created by the Montague and Capulet families and their mutual animosity that forced Romeo and Juliet to take drastic actions. He also stated that his motives were not only to allow young adults with their own power of consent to validate their love in the eyes of heaven, but also to merge the two families and bring peace to the community—all goals well within his official duties and the teachings of the Church. Friar Laurence defended himself further by arguing that it was his messenger’s cowardice caused by an infectious disease in Mantua that caused his plan’s failure, and that it was the selling of poison to Romeo that was really the act that caused the chain of events. (Under Veronese law, the potential liability of the messenger and apothecary cannot be considered in this case because they both settled the Plaintiffs’ claims against them.)

"The case was tried by a jury, which heard the evidence about the events (the record of which is set out in Shakespeare’s transcript of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet). Verona is a comparative negligence jurisdiction where wrongdoing can be apportioned between and among the parties in an action. If a plaintiff is found responsible for 50 percent or more of liability, that plaintiff may not collect from a defendant found liable for 50 percent or less. Deliberating over two full days, the jury found in favor of the Montagues and Capulets against Friar Laurence, determining that he was 70 percent the cause of Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths and that the families' history and their respective actions after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt were 30 percent of the cause.

"Friar Laurence appealed, arguing that the jury’s verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence and contrary to law because he was not negligent at all and, if he was, he was no more responsible than the Plaintiffs themselves."

On petition for review, the Supreme Court agreed to review the following two questions:

  1. Was Friar Laurence negligent?
  2. If so, was the jury’s assessment of comparative fault supported by the evidence in the case?

For ticket information, contact the STC box office at 202-547-1122, option 1. Trial-Only tickets can only be purchased by contacting the box office and not through the company's website.

December 7, 2016

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