“Cornell has been the ideal place for me, and I feel lucky to have wound up at a school that so suits my mentality, both when I arrived and to this day,” says Henderson. “All these years, I’ve enjoyed being a legal academic, and of all the aspects I’ve enjoyed, the only one that I will not pursue from here on is teaching. Four years ago, when I began phased retirement, I didn’t want to risk getting into the position of wishing I’d done so earlier, and I haven’t. Now is the perfect time.”
Apart from sabbaticals, Henderson has taught torts at Cornell Law every year since 1984, along with courses in products liability, insurance, and legal process. He’s testified numerous times before state legislatures and congressional committees, published seventy articles and three casebooks—The Torts Process (1974, eighth edition 2012); Products Liability: Problems and Process(1987, seventh edition 2011); and Torts: Cases and Materials(2003, third edition 2011)—that have become standard texts at law schools throughout the country.
Written with Aaron Twerski, the Irwin and Jill Cohen Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, portions of the restatement generated controversy upon publication, but over time it has become widely accepted as a landmark in legal scholarship, praised for its comprehensiveness, organization, and lucidity. “Jim has a razor-sharp mind, and if an argument doesn’t follow logic, it’s like he’s heard chalk screech on a blackboard,” says Twerski, who also collaborated on Products Liability: Problems and Process and on Torts: Cases and Materials, and dozens of articles. “He thinks with an inexorable logic, and if there are any gaps in an argument, he’s able to zero in on them. He’s a great man, a first-rate academic with a deep feeling for jurisprudence, and the fact that the Restatement has been cited thousands of times shows him to be an original thinker who doesn’t take second place to anyone.”
In 2006, Henderson and Twerski were named special masters in the responders’ lawsuits stemming from the World Trade Center disaster, the most complex mass-tort litigation in American history, presided over by Hon. Alvin K. Hellerstein, U.S. District Judge of the Southern District of New York. Faced with more than 13,000 individual claims, Henderson, Twerski and counsel for the parties designed and built an enormous database to evaluate allegations of more than three hundred different diseases, taking into account a wide range of symptoms, sites, toxins, exposure, conditions, training, equipment, treatment, and medical histories to support settlement of the great majority of cases by 2010.
“In dealing with the judge and with the parties, Professor Henderson was always thoughtful and respectful, but politely firm on points he believed to be right,” says Owen Roth ’09, a former student of Henderson’s and a former law clerk for Hellerstein. “He was unflappable, bringing a warmth and friendliness to the discussions, with a knack for finding the simplest, most elegant solution, easily understood, that addresses the issues most effectively. It was a wonderful way to work with attorneys—adversarial by nature—and I have tried to emulate it.”
Patrick Blakemore ’12, who spent two years as Henderson’s research assistant, praises his mentor’s skill in striking a balance between academia and legal practice. “Professor Henderson’s ability to incorporate practical aspects of the law into his scholarship is a unique and enviable trait,” he says. “As a first-year law student, I found his perspective incredibly eye-opening, offering a creative way to think about the elusive ‘path of the law,’ and I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with him.”
Thinking back to his own beginnings at Cornell, Schwab remains grateful for Henderson’s example. “When I was first teaching torts twenty-five years ago, he was enormously generous with his time and insights,” says Schwab. “He’s the best creator of hypotheticals that I know, and I’ve incorporated so much of his thinking into my own that I no longer know what is Jim’s and what is mine.” Cynthia R. Farina, the William G. McRoberts Research Professor in Administration of the Law, remembers a story Henderson told at her 1985 job interview, steering the discussion back to her greatest strengths. “I don’t recall all the details of that day, but I’ll never forget the way he chose to rescue a young and very green prospective colleague through a gentle, self-deprecatory parable,” she says. “Such generosity of spirit is rare, and in the years since, I’ve come to know Jim as one of the most subtle and powerful intellects on the faculty.”.
After retiring from teaching, Henderson expects to divide his time between Florida and New York, where he continues to serve as a special master, working with Judge Hellerstein and Professor Twerski to resolve the remaining thousand or so World Trade Center claims. (Hellerstein, Henderson, and Twerski wrote about their experience in “Managerial Judging: The 9/11 Responders’ Tort Litigation,” published in volume 98, number 1 of the Cornell Law Review.) He’s currently working on two articles, one on equal protection under the fifth and fourteenth amendments, and another on failure to warn in products liability; if all goes well, he’ll eventually incorporate them into his final major work, a book called The Logic of American Law: Problem Solving through Public and Private Ordering, which is currently several hundred pages long in manuscript. In October, a representative from the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) notified Henderson that he had been chosen as the winner of the William L. Prosser award, to be given in January 2014 by the AALS Torts and Compensation Systems Section. According to Jennifer Wriggins, chair of the section and professor at the University of Maine School of Law, this award recognizes Henderson’s “outstanding and brilliant achievements in the field of tort law, in terms of scholarship, teaching, and service.”
“I think of myself as a problem solver,” says Henderson. “It’s what I love about law and about what I do. There are people who come to legal academics thinking of themselves as lawyers who happen to have an academic bent, and I’ve always counted myself asone of them. Although I’ll miss the colleagues and students I’ve had over the many years, I’m ready to move on to the next phase, addressing new issues and solving new problems.”