April Gambardella and Lauren Hill are the winners of the 2017-2018 Honorable James Hunter III Moot Court oral argument competition in a product liability case involving an accident in which a car’s communication system allowed the driver to post to his Facebook account while the car was in motion.
The Gambardella and Hill team was among 16 pairs of law students who argued on behalf of their clients through five rounds of competition from March 5 to April 4 at the United States courthouse in Camden. Volunteer judges, including lawyers from private practice, state and federal government, in-house counsel, and state and federal courts, heard the students’ arguments and selected the winners.
Gambardella and Hill argued the fictional appeal on behalf of the defendant/appellant, Galaxy Motors Inc., which designed and manufactured the car with Facebook access. The plaintiff/respondent, Kelly Whall, alleged that the car was defectively designed because the driver was able to post to his Facebook account while driving, resulting in the car running up onto the sidewalk and striking her.
Gambardella and Hill argued that the vehicle’s hands-free communication system was not defective, and that the accident was caused by the careless driver, and not the car.
“It was our position that the relationship between the manufacturer and the driver of the vehicle was too far attenuated for the manufacturer to hold any responsibility for the accident,” says Gambardella, a 2L from Glen Ridge, N.J.
The team relied in part on New Jersey’s Hands Free statute, which allows drivers to use hands-free electronic communication devices while driving, provided that they exercise a high degree of caution.
“We focused on the fact that this system was fit, suitable, and safe for its intended purpose,” says Hill, a 2L from North Hanover, N.J. “It allowed drivers to comply with the law and aligned with the Legislature's goal of reducing distracted driving.”
The moot court competition is the students’ final project of the course, “Appellate Advocacy: Hunter Moot Court Program,” that students take in the fall and spring semesters. Hunter is an advanced, five-credit course that is restricted to students who compete for a seat in the program through a combination of LAWR grades and an oral argument tryout.
Led by Barbara Gotthelf, a professor of practice and director of externship, students studied advanced legal writing principles and wrote appellate briefs in the fall semester. The spring semester was devoted to studying oral argument, and learning to present a case in court. The spring semester culminates in the competition.
“They are handling material that would challenge any practicing lawyer,” says Gotthelf, “and they are arguing with a degree of skill, poise, and agility that goes well beyond what you’d expect to see from law students.”
After months of preparation, some sleepless nights, and then making it through four rounds, Gambardella and Hill competed in the finals against Justin Mignogna (3L) and Amy Pearl (3L), who represented the plaintiff/respondent.
Each team argued its case before Justice Lee A. Solomon of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and judges Robert B. Kugler and John Michael Vazquez, of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
“It's always a bit nerve-wracking arguing in front of other people,” says Hill. “When I got up to the podium, the nerves really subsided, and I was focused entirely on the questions the judges were asking, and the argument that I had prepared.”
“Through this simulation I feel like I have a much better understanding of what to expect when I graduate and enter the workforce,” says Gambardella.
Hunter students are also recognized for their exceptional writing skills. “Best Brief” awards were presented to Mignogna, Pearl, Bridget Devlin (2L), and Joanna Gardner (2L).
“Many of our judges this year commented that the arguments made by the students were better than what they typically see in their courtrooms from seasoned attorneys,” says Gotthelf. “This was sincere praise.”