Robert Ernest Keeton (December 16, 1919 – July 2, 2007) was an American lawyer, jurist, and legal scholar. As a law professor at Harvard Law School and a federal judge he was known for his work on torts, insurance law, and practical courtroom tactics. Keeton, with Jeffrey O'Connell of the University of Virginia School of Law, played a key role in the advancement of no-fault automobile insurance.
Keeton was born in Clarksville, Texas, on December 16, 1919. He was the second youngest of five children of William Keeton (who owned a general store) and Ernestine Teuton Keeton. One of his brothers, W. Page Keeton, also became a prominent lawyer and educator.
Keeton earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas and his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law. As an undergraduate he became one of three students inducted into the Friar Society, an honor society at the University of Texas. In law school he was the assistant editor-in-chief of the Texas Law Review.
Keeton went into private practice with the law firm of Baker & Botts in Houston before joining the U.S. Navy in World War II. As a lieutenant serving aboard the escort aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) he survived the sinking of the ship on November 24, 1943, by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175. Keeton, clinging to debris for hours, was later pulled from the ocean. He was awarded a Purple Heart.
He joined Harvard Law School in 1953, where he would remain until 1979. In 1954, he wrote Trial Tactics and Methods, a book of practical advice on courtroom skills. Keeton later developed a program at Harvard (later used at other law schools) in which experienced trial lawyers taught students. One rule of Keeton's program was to not ask hostile witnesses open-ended questions.
In the early 1970s, Keeton worked with University of Virginia School of Law professor Jeffrey O'Connell on a study that contributed to the development of no-fault automobile insurance, later adopted by many states. Under a no-fault system, damages below a certain level are paid by insurance companies, thus avoiding a determination of who was at fault.
Keeton left Harvard in 1979 when he was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. He remained on the bench until 2006. In 1979 Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed him chair of the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States, a body responsible for developing the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Keeton presided over the 1988-1989 mail fraud and obstruction of justice trial of Lyndon LaRouche and eleven associates, which ended with Keeton declaring a mistrial. He also presided over the 1995 Lotus Dev. Corp. v. Borland Int'l, Inc. trial involving the extent of software copyright, a case that later was decided by the Supreme Court. Keeton also presided over the next decade in some wrongfully decided fraud cases of relevance, which tarnished his reputation. His errors were published, and he was reversed on some, by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1984 Keeton, along with older brother Page as lead author, and professors Dan Dobbs and David Owen, published the 5th edition of Prosser and Keeton on Torts. The book, based on William Prosser's influential Prosser on Torts (1941), became a foundational text of tort law and has become frequently used as a law textbook and reference work for many law students, lawyers, and jurists.
Keeton died of complications of a pulmonary embolism in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived. He was 87.
- Hevesi, Dennis. "Robert E. Keeton, 87, Author of Influential Law Treatises, Is Dead." New York Times 4 August 2007.
- "In Memoriam: Robert E. Keeton, 1919–2007." 16 July 2007. University of Texas School of Law.
- Tench, Megan. "Robert E. Keeton, 88, judge, professor, author, war hero." Boston Globe 3 July 2007.
- "Finding aid for Robert E. Keeton, Papers, 1962-1977.". Harvard Law School Library. http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/findingAidDisplay?_collection=oasis&inoid=4836.
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