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Fall 2015/Spring 2016 - Disasters and the Law

Wednesdays (4:30pm-6:30pm)


Recent humanitarian challenges caused by large scale disasters like the earthquake in Nepal raise long-neglected questions of national and international law. This Global Research Seminar takes a comparative, interdisciplinary approach to the topic of law and disasters by exploring a variety of controversial legal and policy issues in the areas of disaster preparedness, emergency response, and victim compensation.

The first part of the course will focus on the intersection of law and disasters, particularly the legal responsibility to adequately prepare for disasters in federalized and centralized systems, the law, politics and ethics of humanitarian disaster relief, government and/or private obligations to compensate disaster victims, policies governing post-disaster recovery and rebuilding, and the international law of disasters. The course will then turn to an analysis of key case studies within and beyond the United States, including Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 9/11, Three Mile Island (TMI), the Sichuan earthquake, the Bhopal toxic accident, and the Fukushima earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. Students will meet with central figures in those cases – the lead human rights lawyer representing Bhopal victims, the judges and/or attorneys who presided over the TMI cases, public interest lawyers involved in Katrina litigation, government policymakers, and private sector leaders – as well as with senior officials from FEMA, the UN, state disaster response agencies, and other organizations. In January, we will spend a week in Japan engaged in intensive field research, with a particular focus on the causes and consequences of the Fukushima triple-disaster of 2011.


This course will meet weekly on Wednesdays from 4:30-6:30pm during the Fall 2015 semester, and irregularly during the Spring term. Spring sessions will focus on helping students refine their research topics, complete their research, and produce a draft of significant quality. The Spring term sessions will be outside of regular class hours so as to avoid a conflict with students’ other Spring term classes.

Students are expected to participate in a Law and Disasters conference at Penn Law on November 19-20, 2015, that will assemble an eminent group of experts from the US and abroad. Kenneth Feinberg, America’s foremost expert on disaster compensation, will present the keynote address. During the winter break (January 2-10, 2016), the class will spend one week in Japan, where the group will meet with influential legal and policy actors in Tokyo as well as victims and their legal representatives in Fukushima. In order to be eligible for this class, students must be able to attend the entirety of this research trip.


Students are responsible for arranging and paying for their own transportation to/from Japan. Students must arrive on the specified date and remain with the group until the end of the program. There will be no exceptions for late arrivals or early departures.

In addition to airfare, students will be charged a $900 program fee (for accommodations, in-country transportation and other programmatic expenses.) The trip fee assumes double occupancy accommodations. Some meals and cultural excursions will be covered by the program fees, but students will be expected to cover additional meals, sightseeing activities and incidental expenses.

Penn Law will provide partial or full financial aid to qualifying students. Students are also able to increase their loans to cover costs associated with this trip. After enrollment is determined, students seeking financial aid will be asked to provide a separate letter explaining the basis for their need. Financial aid decisions will be made in a timely fashion to allow students to drop the course should they wish to.


This class is open to 2L, 3L, and LLM students; there are no pre-requisites for enrolling in the seminar.

The application deadline is July 17, 2015. In order to be considered for the seminar, students must follow the instructions provided via the online form below. Applicants must submit a short personal statement (of no more than 500 words) describing their reasons for wanting to take this class and their interest in the topic together with a resume and unofficial transcript. As noted previously, only students who are able to be a part of the January research trip should apply.

Application Instructions