More than just bloodsucking lawyers

While thoughts may turn to zombies, vampires and other ghoulish creatures as Hallowe’en approaches, few think of adding “the law” into the mix.

That is, few except UBC Law professor Sharon Sutherland.

Sutherland, who teaches law and theatre, has researched references to vampires and zombies in judicial decisions. From cases that won’t die, to “bloodsucking” taxes and defendants’ drug-induced “zombie states,” Sutherland has found an abundance of mentions of the undead in legal judgments.

As a fan of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a drama centred on a teen girl destined to fight vampires and demons, as well as its spin-off Angel, about the vampire with a soul who battles evil forces led by a law firm in downtown Los Angeles, Sutherland says it’s no surprise she began watching for mentions of vampires in legal decisions.

Her latest article, “Corporate Zombies and the Perils of ‘Zombie Litigation,’” with co-author and UBC law alumnus Sarah Swan, has just been submitted for publication.

Q: Your research found more than 200 mentions of zombies in case law over the last 50 years, with most occurring in the last decade. Why are judges making reference to zombies in writing their judgments?

A lot of judges draw on popular culture references for a number of different reasons. Often they’re just making a joking comment to make clear that whatever’s happening in front of them is frivolous. There’s no doubt the judge is thinking, “You’re ridiculous, I’m not taking you seriously, and I’m going to make it very clear by using references that are very silly.” You definitely get that flavour, particularly in American law. But they’re also clearly drawing on things their audience is going to understand and connect with, which is why we found a lot of references in case law that track popular culture. Zombies are in, so it would be very surprising if judges didn’t make some kinds of references to them. It communicates well and it’s definitely a dramatic metaphor that captures people’s attention.

Q: You write that the image of the zombie is used when individuals are said to have given up power over their own decision-making, or as a defence for drug and alcohol abuse.

The one we actually saw the most was in reference to insolvency law, where one case has been cited for its “evil zombie rule” in more than 30 other cases. There were similar types of uses with “zombie litigation,” as in things that just won’t die. In particular, extreme cases that take forever to wind their way through the court certainly have some relevance with the notion of the zombie, the unkillable, unstoppable undead that continues to walk.

Q: How did your background in theatre influence this research?

I was very involved in television work while working on my PhD in Theatre, before I went to law school. I use it a lot in teaching, partly because theatre clips are great for teaching law, but also because pulling video clips to demonstrate particular ideas has been really effective. Angel lends itself beautifully to the teaching of the entire legal curriculum, as far as I’m concerned. It has examples of almost anything, including property law, tort and lots of battery.

Q: Are vampires also seen as the undead in case law?

I think vampiric imagery makes its way into the law partly through external forces. With zombies, judges may mention them but they’re not being mentioned very much by witnesses on the stand. You’ll occasionally hear, “I felt like a zombie,” but you don’t get a lot of the imagery coming from that. I think with the vampires, it starts differently. Jokes about bloodsucking lawyers trace back to medieval times.

Q: Other than references that point to lawyers? bad reputations, what else in law attracts vampire imagery?

Some of the earlier references to things such as taxes introduced the notion of bloodsucking, which naturally attaches to vampires. But there’s been a really clear connection between vampires and lawyers in popular culture. Angel is an obvious example; clearly you wouldn’t get a case in which somebody creates a show in which the lawyers are the ultimate evil, with the good-guy vampire, unless you had enough popular culture connections between the two.