New president of MAJ aims to preserve plaintiff rights --'Right to a jury trial in jeopardy every day'

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 despite its invisible pull. And 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, so he walked through that door.

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 to 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 doesn't 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.

He said other issues are being looked at, including no-fault insurance coverage, which would also affect potential tort trials and "set a higher bar for victims in a lot of different areas."

As president of the MAJ, formerly the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, Behm, 44, said his goal is to preserve those rights.

His path to becoming a champion for justice began in Flint in 1967.

After graduating from Carman High School, he went to the University of Michigan. He entertained thoughts of going into 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, and decided to attend law school.

Behm said the seed to a law profession was likely planted years earlier, in his teens, when he became interested in a few 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 one, but I was impressed my Dad was able to help this family."

That door in Behm's life leading to law school cracked open, and years later, he walked through.

Behm's father had already taught him and 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 than the others.

During law school, Behm clerked at three different firms in the Detroit area.

"I didn't know what area of law I wanted to enter, but you weed things out as you're moving through," he said. 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.

"They gave me a great deal of responsibility quite quickly," he said.

His father, Richard J. Behm, and his partner became mentors to the young attorney, as did Behm's brother Tom, an attorney 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 to 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 to follow in his practice. 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," Behm said. "And if I had a nickel for every time I said that to one of my clients, I'd have quite a few nickels."

Behm said 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 said he enjoys his work. "It sounds clichéd, but I do it to help people," he said.

Behm said he sees people at the worst time of their life - when they've been injured, or a loved one killed in a traffic crash, or construction accident - and looking at these victims he wonders how can they possibly go onward in life. Years later, some clients still keep in touch and have gone on with life.

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

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 the 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 has become more engaged with the judicial and legislative branches of government, including the Governor's office, to make its message heard.

Behm works locally not only in his pursuit of justice, but also to make his community a better place for everyone. He has been elected to the State Bar of Michigan Representative Assembly, and has served many years on the Genesee County Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Genesee County Bar Association.

He has served on the Genesee County Voter Protection Program, and on the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA) as trustee since 2002 and as president of that group from 2005-07, overseeing a $20 million renovation and building project at the museum. His first job at the FIA was property chairman for the annual art fair.

"I thought it sounded like a great post to have, although. I say post unintentionally," Behm said. "But the property chairman is the guy who pounds all the posts in with a post-pounder to set up the fencing on the outside of the art fair.

"It sounded really glamorous, but it was not," Behm said. "I have gotten many a callous to show that I was the property chairman."

The hard work and minor abrasions did not deter Behm, and he's now involved with the FIA's film series and community education programs.

Behm said it's important as an attorney, and as a citizen, to give back to the community, and he encourages others to find an area that interests them and pursue a way to donate to that cause.

He and his wife, Kay, a Genesee County judge, live in Grand Blanc with three children, Jack, Ellie and Annie. For fun, they spend time with the children and their activities and also enjoy their cottage on Lake Michigan. Behm also skis in winter and plays an impressive game of golf in the summer.

There are very few doors that Behm walks by now.

Published: Mon, Oct 10, 2011

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