Robert E. Keeton, a former federal judge and Harvard law professor who wrote widely influential treatises on tort law, courtroom tactics and no-fault auto insurance, died July 1 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 87 and lived in Cambridge.
The cause was complications of a pulmonary embolism, his son, Bill, said.
Judge Keeton was a professor at Harvard from 1953 until 1979, the year that President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Federal District Court in Massachusetts.
Judge Keeton, who retired from the bench last year, was best known in legal circles for his widely used text, “Prosser and Keeton on Torts” (Thompson West, 1984). The frequently revised book updates the pioneering work of William L. Prosser on the field of law that deals with cases of wrongdoing that do not involve a breach of contract. Torts can be either unintentional or intentional — for example, a car accident or an assault. Professor Prosser, who later became dean of the College of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the original text in 1941.
Mark L. Wolf, the chief judge of the Federal District Court for Massachusetts, said yesterday that Judge Keeton’s revisions “became the authoritative reference text that would introduce law students to torts, and the place where lawyers and judges frequently first go to begin their research.”
The book outlines and analyzes cases, Judge Wolf said, “then distills general principles and discusses how they might be applied in cases where the circumstances are uncertain.”
In the early 1970s, while still a law professor, Judge Keeton collaborated with Jeffrey O’Connell, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, on a study that has been widely cited as contributing to the development of no-fault automobile insurance. Under no-fault policies, drivers involved in an accident in which damages are below a certain monetary level are compensated by their own insurance companies, avoiding the costs of determining who was at fault. Many states now have no-fault insurance laws.
In 1954, Professor Keeton wrote “Trial Tactics and Methods” (Little, Brown and Company), which offered practical courtroom advice rather than legal theory. His ideas were later incorporated into a program that he developed at Harvard and that was emulated at other law schools. Under the program, distinguished trial lawyers were brought onto campus to teach courtroom skills. For example, students were warned not to ask hostile witnesses open-ended questions.
“He taught many of us on the federal bench when we were students at the Harvard Law School, and he was still teaching us until the end of his judicial career,” Judge Wolf said of his colleague.
Robert Ernest Keeton was born in Clarksville, Tex., on Dec. 16, 1919, the second youngest of five children of William and Ernestine Teuton Keeton. His father owned a general store.
In addition to his son, of Kansas City, Mo., Judge Keeton is survived by his wife of 66 years, the former Elizabeth Baker; a daughter, Katherine Carter of Boston; a brother, Morris, of Columbia, Md.; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Judge Keeton earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Texas, then practiced law in Houston before joining the Navy in World War II. On Nov. 24, 1943, Lieutenant Keeton’s ship, the aircraft carrier Liscome Bay, was struck by a Japanese torpedo. He was pulled from the ocean after clinging to debris for many hours.
One of Judge Keeton’s most notable cases in his 27 years on the bench involved a Boston police officer, Kenneth Conley, who had been convicted of perjury in the beating of another officer in 1995. The other officer, who was out of uniform and off duty, had been chasing a suspect when he was arrested by several other officers. Officer Connelly was charged with perjury for saying that he did not participate in the beating or see the beating.
But Judge Keeton later found that the prosecutors had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence and ordered a new trial. Eventually, the conviction was vacated.
Since Judge Keeton’s death, a portrait of him has been standing in the lobby of the federal courthouse in Boston, with a book below it where visitors can share their thoughts about the judge. One inscription, reading “Thanks for giving me my life back,” is signed by Mr. Conley.