Flying high Attorney enjoys long career in aviation law

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Peter Tolley not only flies high in the legal world, he has a commercial pilot's certificate and has flown all over the continental U.S. and Canada both as a corporate chief pilot, and for his own love of travel.

And -- no surprise here -- this senior attorney at Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith in Grand Rapids specializes in aviation law, although he also is involved in commercial litigation, construction law, insurance law, and personal injury litigation.

"Without a doubt, aviation litigation is my favorite, but construction cases -- while boring for jurors -- are fun as well," he says.

Tolley didn't always have the law in his sights. He started out at Michigan Tech in Houghton but after deciding that engineering was not to his liking, he thought a career in the Foreign Service might fit. Then, as an undergrad in political science at Ohio State, he thought law would be even better, and went on to earn his juris doctorate from Ohio State University College of Law.

"Once I decided on the law, I always wanted to be a trial lawyer -- I think it fits my personality," he says. "Litigation 'gets one out of the office,' so to speak, during the investigative stage."

That includes trips to rock quarries in August in Houston; to plane accidents in several states, including Alaska; and to construction sites in Arizona and Florida. The longest case he tried was almost 4 months in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Aviation law -- which regulates airline flights, airport construction, operation, and maintenance, take-off and landing procedures, flight plans, what altitudes to fly at, whether instrument-only flight is possible, and much more -- is extremely technical.

"I once had a judge tell me that a review of the Federal Aviation Regulations called to mind a walk through the Internal Revenue Code, except that in the Internal Revenue Code they spoke English," Tolley says. "So blending my litigation and aviation was a natural."

Aviation law includes liability cases involving accidents, but there is also the regulatory side. For example if a certificated person violates an FAR, the FAA may propose a certificate action involving suspension or revocation.

"Aviation is so highly regulated that an owner/operator of an aircraft can run afoul of the law quite innocently, like agreeing to fly a friend or neighbor to a distant place to see a sick relative, and getting reimbursed for the expense," Tolley explains.

His passion for flying stems from childhood; his father was an engineer for the Jet Propulsion Division of General Electric in Evandale, Ohio.

"I've always been fascinated with aircraft," Tolley says. "When I moved to Grand Rapids, I bought a Taylorcraft 1942 model for $800. It had no electrical system -- therefore no starter, you had to spin the prop -- and no navigation equipment, but it did come with skies. I earned my private certificate in that plane and then sold it to a friend. I couldn't get enough. As time went on, I was able to move up in equipment, and I had a far-reaching practice that allowed me to build a lot of time without too much expense."

As his flying experience and ratings increased, Tolley regularly used his plane to fly one of his clients on business. This client, who owned companies in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Switzerland, one day suggested a corporate aircraft was in order -- and bought a Beech King Air, an 8-passenger turbo-prop.

"After a couple years, he thought we should get a go-fast machine, so we acquired a Dassault Falcon jet," Tolley says. "We put both aircraft on Part 135 Air Carrier Certificates and used them in charter as well."

Tolley, who joined Foster Swift in 2005 as a member of the General Litigation Group, is a member of the State Bar of Michigan Aviation Section, the NTSB Bar Association, the International Society of Air Safety and the Lawyer-Pilot Bar Association. He is admitted to practice law in Michigan and in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan, U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Married with four adult children, this native of Glendale, Ohio, picked Grand Rapids as a city large enough to offer a diverse practice, and also located near big water.

"I was either going to live on one of the coasts, or the Great Lakes," he says. "I picked Grand Rapids, and I'm pleased with the decision."

That "big water" fuels his other passions of sailing, boating, and scuba diving; he also enjoys shooting sports (handgun and skeet), and photography.

Published: Wed, Jun 13, 2012