Frank J. Vandall

Professor of Law

Frank Vandall at faculty retirement reception

More than 50 years of doing what couldn’t be done


While on a routine school bus ride, a seventh-grade Frank Vandall turned to his seatmate and announced that he’d one day become a lawyer. As a lawyer, Vandall recalls noting, he could help people. However, Vandall’s mother, an accountant at a Pittsburgh law firm, advised her son otherwise. “I was counseled not to become a lawyer because nobody pays their bills,” Vandall says. So, he considered becoming a philosophy teacher, soon realizing that because of the difficulty breaking into academia, he might never get to teach, even if he earned a PhD in philosophy.

The law kept calling, and Vandall earned a law degree at Vanderbilt, studying with law dean and renowned torts authority John Wade. Not only would Vandall get the chance to teach — 52 years at Emory Law, the longest by any faculty member — but he also played a critical supporting role in laying the foundation to sue Big Tobacco — one of the hallmark product liability litigations of the 20th century. Vandall’s speeches and his article, “The Application of Absolute Liability to Cigarette Manufacturers” (Ohio State Law Journal) played an important role in the 1996 lawsuit against tobacco companies that alleged predatory marketing and egregious efforts to normalize smoking.

“I think the most powerful thing I’ve done in my career is to be a force to increase the price of cigarettes and make it crystal clear how dangerous smoking is,” says Vandall, noting that cigarettes kill more than 400,000 people a year. “My goal was always to push the law and make it apply to more people, to pick the most intractable subject to write about and not to piggyback on others.”

It’s an experience Vandall shares with his students; at Emory Law he teaches first-year torts and advanced courses in products liability and torts. Since making headlines with his tobacco scholarship, Vandall has pushed his way into equally contentious terrain: in a 2020 article in the Emory Law Journal, he argued to hold the NRA liable for damages in gun deaths. He doesn’t parse words. “The NRA runs this country,” Vandall says. “My article suggests ways for suing the NRA.”

Former Emory Law Dean David Partlett, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law, says Vandall made a difference through his writings; he even displayed his whimsy by writing a play that was based on his opposition to guns. “Frank was a steady contributor to the product liability debates that raged over the last quarter of a century,” Partlett says. “His popularity with students stemmed from his ability to empathize and have fun with them. He also had a deep faith in the power of ideas to help society.

“I started when it was a regional law school, and most of the students were from Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas,” Vandall says. “Now we’re a national and international law school.” Assistant Professor of Practice Kamina Pinder said of Vandall, “It can be lonely to speak with conviction and bravery. Integrity is not always an easy thing, but it is because Frank was willing to speak out and take risks that this place was better for it. And it is because of his integrity and compassion that he is such a wonderful teacher, colleague, and friend.”

If his seventh-grade self sought to become a man who would help people, his mission has certainly been accomplished.