Defining works: Career includes series of headline-grabbing cases

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

In 1976, two Filipino nurses were charged with using a paralyzing drug to murder five patients and poison 10 others at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor. The high profile case--involving an intense, nationwide FBI investigation, a federal grand jury in Detroit, more than a thousand statements from hundreds of witnesses, and hypnosis of 14 government witnesses--kept the news media in a frenzy for months and drew international attention. It's just one of many fascinating cases in Tom O'Brien's long career as a trial attorney.

"I've handled several cases over the years that have drawn public attention but this is one I'm asked about the most," he says. "Ultimately, the nurses were vindicated, became American citizens and went on to live fulfilled lives. The trial in federal court in Detroit before Judge Phillip Pratt lasted more than six months and was an experience of a lifetime."

O'Brien, senior counsel with Miller Canfield in Ann Arbor, has more than three decades of experience in handling major criminal and civil matters -everything from murder trials and white-collar crime, to catastrophic personal injuries, contract disputes, and malpractice claims against lawyers.

A graduate of Eastern Michigan University and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, O'Brien seemingly was destined for a career in the law. His father, Francis O'Brien, was a judge for more than 30 years in Washtenaw County and as a young boy O'Brien sat in on many of his trials.

"After watching trials in my father's courtroom, I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer," he says. "Trial advocacy is all about the art and science of successfully trying a case."

In another major Washtenaw County case, O'Brien defended a 17-year-old charged with manslaughter after his snowmobile crashed through a car windshield, killing the driver. The prosecution claimed the snowmobile went airborne at a rural intersection in excess of 60 mph; the teen contended he was going less than 30 mph up a steep hill and entering the intersection when an oncoming car crossed the centerline. To avoid a head-on collision, the teen accelerated, causing the front-end of his snowmobile to lift off the ground and strike the car, climbing up the hood and through the windshield. A careful examination of the car supported his claims. O'Brien's team also offered evidence the car driver had smoked marijuana prior to the accident. After protracted litigation, the judge dismissed the felony charge, and the teen was put on probation as a youthful offender.

As trial counsel for Valassis Communications, Inc. in its legal battle with News America, Inc., a part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Miller Canfield obtained a $300 million jury verdict after an eight-week trial in July 2009, the eighth-largest jury verdict in the United States that year. As part of a comprehensive settlement reached three days before the parties were scheduled to begin a second jury trial in federal court in Detroit, News America agreed to pay Valassis $500 million and enter into a 10-year shared mail distribution agreement with Valassis.

"I didn't become heavily involved in the Valassis case until after the state court verdict," he says. "However, I was a member of the trial team that was preparing for the federal court case and helped develop the opening statement and extensive graphics for use at trial. The challenge was to find an interesting narrative to serve as an umbrella for a very complicated commercial case. I believe we succeeded."

O'Brien--whose impressive list of kudos includes Best Lawyers in America, White-Collar Lawyer of the Year, Michigan Super Lawyers, DBusiness Magazine Top Lawyers, Who's Who in American Law, and a recent "Professionalism and Civility in the Practice of Law" Award from the Washtenaw County Bar Association--lectures and teaches at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, the University of Michigan Law School and the Institute of Continuing Legal Education.

"Teaching trial advocacy brings me in regular contact with top faculty and participants," he says. "I'm sure I learn as much as I bring to these programs."

O'Brien joined Miller Canfield in 2006 and works in the firm's Ann Arbor office.

"It's true that Miller Canfield is the oldest and largest law firm in the state, but it's not stuffy and I've enjoyed the professional support and camaraderie of the many excellent lawyers who are members of the firm," he says.

Law is a family affair: his wife, Darlene O'Brien, is a probate and family law judge in Washtenaw County; and the couple, in private practice for 25 years before Darlene went on the bench, has a son in law school, while their daughter is in art school in San Francisco.

O'Brien also has a passion for history; he has been a board member of the Northfield Township Historical Society for more than 30 years, and served 4 years as president. He also served as chair of the Ann Arbor Bicentennial Commission in 1975-76, and has been a board member and president of the Washtenaw Land Trust that honored him in 2003 with a Distinguished Service Award.

"My father's family settled in Washtenaw County before it became a state," says O'Brien, whose ancestor Michael O'Brien left County Cork in Ireland in 1835, and, after working in Massachusetts for a few years, came to Northfield Township and eventually purchased several farms. "We still own a Sesquicentennial Farm that has been in the family 175 years. Most of my free time is spent doing projects on the farm and my family loves it too."

The Michigan Centennial Farm Association honored the O'Brien farm on Five Mile Road in 1996 as Outstanding Centennial Farm of the Year; and the Northfield Township Historical Society gave it a Centennial Farm Award that same year.

"When the Michigan territory was being settled, many Irish immigrants came to Detroit through the Erie Canal and then moved westward into Washtenaw County," notes O'Brien, a member of the Incorporated Society of Irish-American Lawyers, and many other professional legal organizations. "In the 1870s, more than half of the population in Northfield Township, north of Ann Arbor, was Irish. Self government, affordable land, freedom of religion and the prospect of a better life kept them here and many of those families still reside in the township today."

Published: Mon, Jun 18, 2012

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