Flying high: Attorney's niche is in aviation law

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Tim O’Connell once was involved a case that saw a skydiving outfit in Missouri suffer six fatalities after the engine burned out and the DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter plane crashed in a residential neighborhood about a mile from Sullivan airport, 60 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Despite the clear tragedy, from a purely legal perspective, it was in many respects a dream case for plaintiffs’ attorneys, O’Connell says.

“There was no comparative negligence,” he explains, adding that skydiving cases are an interesting challenge – because it’s such high risk, most of the industry players are self-insured, and there is an industry-wide policy against settling cases.

“Many of the skydivers were first timers who were working for the summer at a nearby camp for kids with special needs. One skydiver was on the flight to overcome her fear of heights. One survivor gave a statement from her hospital bed that she was given a choice by one of the jump school instructors to go down with the plane or try to jump. They elected to jump and hit the ground before the chute could deploy.
She survived because she essentially landed on the instructor, who perished.

“Despite these very compelling facts and a very worthy adversary, we secured a voluntarily dismissal without paying a dime. The plaintiffs got a judgment ultimately entered against a product manufacturer for $48 million.”

An attorney in the Litigation and Aviation practice groups at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss in Southfield, O’Connell’s niche in this field began when, as a student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, he answered an ad for a law clerk – a serendipitous move that led to 10 years at Hoff Law Group, a boutique law firm in Chicago specializing in many aspects of aviation law, from skydiving fatalities, to general aviation crashes, to airport premises liability.

O’Connell joined Jaffe in September and concentrates his practice on aviation liability claims and litigation, representing airlines, aircraft manufacturers, component manufacturers, owners and operators of commercial, business, and general aviation aircraft, aircraft rental, leasing, and repair facilities, airports, and insurance carriers.

“The best part of litigation is the chess match between adversaries armed with the same facts and the same law, but different perspectives and totally different interests,” he says. “I thrive on strategizing reactions to an opponent’s moves, implementing those strategies flawlessly, and prevailing, even when the execution is less than flawless. The law provides our society with confidence in the right result.”

Another interesting case from his Chicago days involved a wrongful death action arising out of a bird strike near the Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City, when shortly after takeoff, a corporate charter jet struck one or more American White Pelicans, which have wingspans up to 9 feet and migration patterns up to 10,000 feet.

“One of the plaintiffs’ experts opined the airport should have used a fleet of remote control aircraft and an army of shotgun wielding locals to mitigate the wildlife hazard posed by waterfowl in the airport’s departure corridors,” O’Connell says. “Plaintiffs also alleged the airport had a proactive duty to implement a wildlife hazard management plan, which would be very expensive to develop and deploy.

“The finding a duty to implement a wildlife hazard plan against our airport would have had significant policy and budget implications for all 2,500 general aviation airports nationwide. We prevailed on the eve of trial on summary judgment with a finding of no proximate cause. The federal judge wisely punted the duty issue.”

O’ConnelI also once defended a slip and fall case at a major airport, where plaintiff allegedly suffered a hip injury arising from an uneven floor tile in the terminal.

“Plaintiff’s counsel blindly made a pre-suit demand for the policy limits – the airport’s policy had a $100 million limit,” he says.  “The case did not settle for the policy limits.”

A graduate of DePaul University in Chicago, O’Connell found himself drawn to a career in law while studying for his master’s degree from Northwestern University,
“My thesis dissected the rhetoric used by Martin Luther King in his early sermons and speeches. Behind King and the civil rights movement were the ranks of civil rights lawyers, including Fred Gray and Clarence Jones,” he explains.

“These lawyers didn’t get the glory, but they were pulling the levers behind the scenes of the movement and were largely responsible for its successes. The idea of exacting change from anonymous offices and small courtrooms was inspiring to me.”

A native of Downers Grove, Ill., near Chicago, O’Connell lived in the Windy City for 20 years before moving to Michigan in 2014. He and his wife Megan and children Elle and Miles now call Clarkston home.

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