In the waiting room in John J. Kennelly's small law office hangs a plaque inscribed: ``Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.'' Mr. Kennelly's name spells worry in the legal offices of many major airlines, according to one industry attorney who asked not to be identified. Kennelly has represented victims' families in some of the world's worst airline disasters, including the O'Hare Airport American Airlines DC-10 crash in 1979 that killed 273 people and the December 1985 Arrow Air crash in Newfoundland that took the lives of 248 servicemen.
A lead counsel for victims of Korean Airlines Flight 007, which was shot down by the Soviets over the Sea of Japan in 1983, Kennelly has insisted for three years that the plane was not on a spy mission. Instead, he says KAL 007 strayed 300 miles after the flight navigator misprogrammed the on-board computer.
He believes evidence presented before a House subcommittee in 1983 concluded that a steering malfunction would have resulted in a 10-mile, not a 300-mile drift, thus adding to the theory of human error. In seeking a verdict of guilty on willful misconduct charges against KAL, the average damage amounts asked for each of the 269 victims would be about $1 million, he says.
While recognized for the more publicized cases, Kennelly's advocacy of passenger rights has also shown itself through litigation of less publicized cases. In a 1968 case, he focused his attack on the constitutionality of the 1929 Warsaw Convention Agreement, which set maximum liability to an airline of $8,291 per passenger. He calls this figure ``an outdated monstrosity.''
The Warsaw agreement, enacted to protect the fledgling airline industry ``has generously allowed the airlines to pay a disproportionately small amount [of damages to victims' families].'' Any other damages, regardless of degree of liability, must be covered by the manufacturers or the US government. (The Warsaw agreement, updated in the Montreal Interim Agreement of 1966, allows a maximum recovery of $75,000 per passenger.)
A prolific legal author, Kennelly also advocates uniformity in international air law, which he says is now ``in a sorry state of confusion'' over questions of liability and jurisdiction.
Currently Kennelly is working on a case that highlights another significant issue, prejudgment interest, which he hopes will receive more attention. While waiting years for liability cases to conclude -- or by intentionally delaying action through cross claims -- airlines, manufacturers, and insurers have been able to earn interest on the money set aside for liability awards. Kennelly believes victims' families should be awarded the accumulated interest if the verdict is favorable.
``Instead of contributing to a fund to reasonably compensate families of [airline crash] victims, defendants (and) insurers are cross-claiming and blaming one another. No wonder [former Chief Justice Warren] Burger questions the feasibility of the adversary system when it can be utilized to defeat its own stated goal of fair and expeditious compensation,'' he said, specifically referring to an Air Illinois crash case pending in circuit court.
Kennelly received his law doctorate from Loyola University, in Chicago, and has been practicing law since 1939. A submarine officer in World War II, Kennelly went on to write numerous articles on aviation litigation and is editor of a well-read trial lawyers guide.
Kennelly's reputation precedes him, says defense attorney and frequent courtroom opponent Edmund Sinnott. ``Some people [in the airline industry] are in awe of him.'' Kennelly works with only two other attorneys, and he does most of the pretrial work himself, taking depositions around the world.
Many in the legal community emphasize Kennelly's fairness and honesty. Chicago Lawyer's editor, Rob Warden, who investigated firsthand allegations of price gouging by some attorneys representing relatives in the O'Hare DC-10 case, cited Kennelly for ``entering into far more fair and equitable settlements than many others.''
As a pioneering lawyer in the civil aviation field, which dramatically took off in the early 1950s, Kennelly is well versed in the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board. According to one federal judge, Kennelly has ``an ability to extract just what he needs, to go for the jugular at just the right time.'' He adds, ``[Kennelly is] as knowledgeable as the experts he calls to testify, and that's rare.''
Despite having researched hundreds of crashes during his 30 years in the field, Kennelly says he feels totally safe flying, whether piloting himself or flying in a commercial jet. ``Life insurance companies charge the pilots the same premium they charge passengers,'' he said.