It meant he would miss three days of school, but Ben Keller took the plunge and booked a last-minute plane ticket to Tulsa, Oklahoma, while sitting in Scott Commons one sunny February morning.

“I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’” the first-year University of Virginia School of Law student said of his decision to travel, at his former boss’ request, to help with final arguments in a lawsuit he had worked on before law school. Days later, the verdict in the case — involving a woman who died because she didn’t receive proper medical care in prison — became the largest civil rights death jury verdict in U.S. history.

Before Keller applied to UVA Law, the University of Michigan graduate interviewed to clerk at Smolen & Roytman, a Tulsa plaintiffs’ firm specializing in civil rights, personal injury and employment discrimination claims. He was looking for a job after his two-year Teach For America assignment instructing sixth graders in language arts and social studies ended.

During the interview, Keller made the case to Daniel Smolen for hiring him as a clerk even though he had no legal experience: The son of two attorneys, he’d felt “called” to be a lawyer since he was a child. His dad was a federal public defender and his mom worked primarily in labor relations.

The interview went well, but COVID-19 shut down most of the country later that week. Smolen said he forgot about the interview until a chance encounter later that summer, when he bumped into Keller at a mutual friend’s wedding.

“I [had] interviewed him six months before and felt really bad about it,” Smolen said. “He was trying to decide if he was going to defer law school because of [COVID-19] and I told him he could work at the office with me for a few months while he made a decision.”

From November 2020 until August 2022, Keller worked in Smolen’s office on nine jury trials, but spent much of his time on a troubling 10-year-old case that gave him cause to defer his admission to law school.

Gwendolyn Young was an inmate at Tulsa County Jail who had been detained for threatening a public official. She had a history of heart problems, and bipolar and anxiety disorders. While in the county jail, there were several reported instances where Young passed out, vomited blood and slurred her speech. Young died in 2013, after just five months in the facility.

The county contracted with Correctional Healthcare Cos. to provide medical services in its jails, but Young’s family, led by plaintiff Deborah Young, alleged the provider failed to give appropriate medical care to Young and others.

Keller got “deep in the weeds” on the Young case, compiling evidence, managing exhibits and talking to Deborah Young.

Though Keller, a recipient of the Robert G. Zack Scholarship, began his studies at UVA Law in the fall of 2022, he continued to work on the case, conducting research and communicating weekly with Smolen in his free time, including over winter break.

Smolen said he was “blown away” by Keller’s grit and determination to see the case through.

“I think he’s really gifted,” Smolen said. “His ability to grasp complex information is way above average. He’s probably the most efficient person I’ve seen at getting something done.”

Young’s wrongful death claim under Section 1983 of the federal code, Young v. Correctional Health Care Companies Inc., was finally scheduled for trial in February, after years of delays.

After a week of testimony, Smolen’s check-in came with a twist: Could Keller miss a few days from school to attend the closing arguments?

Keller booked his flight, attended his Monday classes the next day, flew to Tulsa that evening and was sitting in the courtroom Tuesday morning.

After catching up with the rest of the team, Keller started compiling information for the 90-minute closing argument. He and another employee stayed up all night to create a 50-slide PowerPoint presentation illustrating the most damning evidence of a pattern of failures to deliver appropriate medical care to inmates.

Young was one of 28 deaths that occurred in Tulsa County Jail under the medical provider’s care, and after Young’s death, the county switched medical providers.

Prisoner Damien Tucker reported chest pain for more than a week without receiving medical treatment and soon died of a coronary embolism. Another man, Patrick Gibson, died after Correctional Healthcare Cos. failed to provide his prescribed medication for heart problems.

On the morning Young died, she complained to medical staff that she was having difficulty breathing.

Prior to this, she had asked to go to the hospital and displayed symptoms like falling, slurred speech and vomiting. She was given Prilosec, an over-the-counter heartburn pill. She was guided back to her room by two employees because she was unable to walk on her own.

A doctor called as an expert witness testified that it was “reckless” not to send her to an emergency room.

Keller filled his slides for the closing argument with these details and more.

“He was really thoughtful when it came down to how a layperson who’s on a jury might perceive the information,” Smolen said. “I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and I’d never had a clerk bring as much as Ben brought to the table.”

After finishing the slides at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, Keller headed over to the courthouse for the closing arguments. He was still wearing the same suit he wore the day before.

“I was kind of in a state of delirium at this point, but I was feeling great because I love this stuff,” Keller said. “I love trying to get justice and making history.”

The jury deliberated for about 24 hours. As Keller was boarding his plane home Friday morning, there was still no verdict. Journal tryouts would start in six hours. At the baggage claim at the Charlottesville airport, he looked down to see a text from an attorney working on the case.

It read: “Oh my god.”

Keller could tell the verdict was in.

“What do you mean?” he wrote back. “Spit it out.”

Not only did Deborah Young secure $14 million in actual damages for the loss of her late mother, but the jury tacked on $68 million in punitive damages to deter such conduct by for-profit medical contractors in the future, Keller said.

“I did not expect that at all,” Keller said. “I had people looking at me like I was a crazy person in the airport — I was just overjoyed.”

According to Smolen, it is the largest standing verdict for a civil rights death claim in the history of the United States.

“We could not have done it without Ben, honestly,” Smolen said. “That’s how important he is to some of the work that we do.”

Keller has since returned to the more predictable life of a law student. He just finished Property and Constitutional Law and he’ll be sitting for exams in the coming days. Next year, he’ll be on the Journal of Law and Politics.

His experience working with Smolen has inspired him to create an outlet for UVA Law students who are interested in practicing plaintiff-side law after graduating. He and a handful of other students recently received approval from the Law School and the Student Bar Association to form a new student organization, the Plaintiffs Law Association at UVA Law.

“I consider myself very lucky because I figured out what kind of law I wanted to do before I started,” said Keller, who plans to work more with Smolen after law school. “We really just want to provide an avenue to educate and inform people that plaintiffs’ firms exist too.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.