New president of MAJ aims to preserve plaintiff rights

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

The door leading to a career in law was right in front of him the whole time, but Michael J. Behm walked by it a few times before entering it.

While his father and grandfather were attorneys, they never pressured him to follow in their path. But eventually, Behm decided that becoming a lawyer was the right choice for him.

Now, 19 years later, Behm is a successful Flint-area attorney, and as president of the Michigan Association for Justice (MAJ), he is faced with another task – to keep another door open and ensure that the constitutional right to a jury trial is not taken away from citizens.

When asked how often that right is in jeopardy, Behm does not hesitate with an answer.

“Daily,” he said.

Behm said that since 1986 products liability and medical malpractice cases have had two-tier caps imposed. “It infringes on a person’s right to a jury trial because the jury doesn’t even hear about the caps,” he said.

The jury may set an award after the case, but the judges then impose the legal cap, “and that’s an infringement on jury trials.”

And Behm said measures are now being talked about by Michigan legislators to grant immunity for hospital emergency room personnel, raising the burden of proof standard another notch for plaintiffs.

“Instead of the negligence standard, it would become a gross negligence standard, which comes a hair-length less than intending to do harm, and that’s a very high standard to impose,” Behm said.

As president of the MAJ, formerly Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, Behm said his goal is to preserve those rights.

His path to becoming a champion for justice began in Flint in 1967. After graduating from high school, he went to the University of Michigan. He entertained thoughts of medicine, and took a few business classes, but discounted those career paths. But he enjoyed English classes and received his degree in that in 1989, then decided to attend law school.

Behm said the seed was likely planted years earlier when he became interested in cases his father was working on. One case involved a man who was electrocuted and lost an arm while putting an antenna on a van that hit a live wire. “I was fascinated by that whole case,” he said. “My Dad, so to speak, let me carry his briefcase on that, but I was impressed my Dad was able to help this family.”

Behm’s father had already taught him and his three brothers the value of a dollar. Behm said he worked over the summer while in college to earn spending money, painting and roofing houses. But in law school he was expected to pay his own way. After being accepted to a few out-of-state law schools, Behm decided on Wayne State because it was closer to home and less expensive.

During law school, Behm clerked at three different Detroit-area firms. “While going through law school I didn’t know what area of law I wanted to enter, but you weed things out as you’re moving through.” His favorite class was torts, “so I wanted to do something in litigation on the civil side involving injured people.”

After graduating in 1992, Behm took a job with a firm in Grand Rapids, but within a year he was offered a position with his father’s firm in Flint.

His father, Richard J. Behm, and his partner became mentors, as did Behm’s brother Tom, a personal injury attorney at Gruel Mills Nims and Pylman in Grand Rapids. The elder Behm recently retired after 50 years in practice, but hammered into his son the practice of civility towards people, the court and other attorneys.

“If you were known as someone who would extend a courtesy, you’d get one back, and that was also a great way to make your way through life,” Behm said.

Former Genesee County Circuit Judge Thomas Yeotis, another mentor, also gave Behm good advice. Behm, who practices personal injury law exclusively for plaintiffs, said his clients want to gain a measure of revenge, or lash out and even the score, but the court system is really about gaining justice.

“Judge Yeotis told me the best way to gain revenge is to live a happy and fulfilled life. And if I had a nickel for every time I said that to one of my clients, I’d have quite a few nickels.”
He enjoys arguing cases in court and likens it to the feeling athletes or actors get. While the preparation and practice can seem like “drudgery,” the actual time in court is the adrenaline rush, where all the work beforehand “gives you the ability to think on your feet and help your client.”

First and foremost, Behm  enjoys his work. “It sounds clichéd, but I do it to help people,” he said, adding that he sees people at the worst time of their life – when they’ve been injured, or had a loved one killed in a traffic crash – and looking at these victims he wonders how can they possibly go on in life. Years later, some clients still keep in touch and tell him how they have done so.

“I’m just amazed at the human condition, and encouraged how you move forward in life no matter what hand your dealt,” he said.

Behm has been recognized for his work, as an AV attorney by Martindale Hubbell, listed on the Michigan Super Lawyer list and recognized by the American Trial Lawyers Association as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in Michigan.

He has been a member of MAJ since 2002, an officer there for four years, and is now serving as president of the 1,700-member professional organization.

“We fight on a daily basis to preserve those rights to a jury trial,” Behm said.

Behm said MAJ combats that by talking to local and state representatives and senators and fighting so elected officials and others realize the jury trial process needs to be protected “so we have the ability to hold someone at fault accountable…and not become a tax burden on the rest of us.”

Caps placed on certain types of lawsuit rewards “put an artificial limit on catastrophic claims,” Behm explained, and that could lead to people leaning on the state for assistance in some cases and, in effect, becoming a tax burden.

He said MAJ is more engaged with the judicial and legislative branches of government, as well as the Governor’s office, to make its message heard.

Behm works not only in his pursuit of justice, but also  to make his community a better place for everyone. He  has served many years on the Genesee County Metropolitan Planning Commission, and on the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA), including as president from 2005-07, overseeing a $20 million renovation and building project at the museum.

He and wife Kay, a Genesee County judge, live in Grand Blanc with their three children, For fun, they spend time together as a family and also enjoy their cottage on Lake Michigan.
There are very few doors that Behm walks by now.

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