By Gregory Karp
When it comes to airplane crashes and the lawyers who try to win money for victims’ families, and themselves, it can be a shark fest, because aviation cases are highly lucrative and rarely lost.
Among those legal sharks is a self-described “piranha from the Amazon,” Chicago’s Monica Kelly.
When a commercial airliner goes down, like the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight in March or the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco last year, Kelly is at the ready to sue airlines and aircraft-makers.
Kelly, born in the mountains of Peru near the Amazon River, is slight in stature, about 5 feet, 3 inches tall. But she casts a relatively large shadow in the world of aviation.
In her first sit-down interview for a profile, Kelly defended herself against accusations she hears all the time _ that she’s the equivalent of an ambulance-chaser for the skies.
Kelly makes no apologies for her legal focus, obtaining money for plane crash victims and their families.
“If they want to be compensated, why shouldn’t you help them get compensated?” she said in a thick Spanish accent. “Of course, I am not a nun. I charge for my services. There’s nothing wrong with making money and helping people at the same time.”
In part, she views herself as fighting for the defenseless, people who might otherwise be steamrolled by insurers offering meager settlements, for example.
Critics, though, have accused Kelly of preying on the grieving and injured, although she says victims or their families always contact her first, usually via email.
Kelly drew significant criticism this year after filing petitions in a Chicago court regarding the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Although the plane hadn’t been found, and still hasn’t, and no victims were confirmed dead or injured, the petition named Malaysia Airlines and Chicago-based Boeing Co. as defendants.
Kelly suggested that the problem was mechanical failure and the aircraft was a “ghost plane for several hours until it ran out of fuel,” eventually plunging into the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 passengers and crew.
Critics called the court filing premature and a publicity stunt, accusations cobbled in an attempt to win legal business after an air disaster.
And Kelly’s firm initially misidentified its client as the father of a passenger when, in fact, he was an uncle.
“These are the kind of lawsuits that make lawyers look bad, and we already look bad enough,” attorney Robert Clifford told the Chicago Tribune at the time. His Clifford Law Office in Chicago also represents plane crash victims.
A Cook County judge threw out the petitions and threatened to impose sanctions against Kelly’s firm if it again filed what the court described as improper, baseless motions.
Kelly said simply that she thinks the judge is wrong, and she has appealed that ruling.
As for criticisms from other attorneys, Kelly essentially dismisses them as jealousy, lawyers upset that she attracts clients they want.
“The competition in the aviation law area is very horrible,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Clifford Law said: “The notion of highly respected international aviation attorneys like Bob Clifford being ‘jealous’ of her practice and her methods is ludicrous.”
Why is competition so fierce for clients in airline crashes? Simple, Kelly said: “You never lose an aviation case.
In many personal injury cases, defendants can argue that the victim did something wrong that contributed to the injury or death, Kelly said. Not with airline crashes; passengers are almost always innocent victims. In addition, victims can sue the airline, the aircraft maker, component parts-makers, maintenance companies, all of which have deep pockets and all greatly insured, she said.
“That’s another reason why these cases are very profitable … there’s plenty of money,” she said. “You never get zero. There is no such thing as, ‘Oh, we lost the case.’ ”
But conducting aviation cases can be expensive, potentially requiring upfront costs for travel, translators and experts.
“It’s very expensive, so not a lot of firms can afford to do the case. But in the end, if you succeed, you do OK,” she said.
Few aviation cases go to trial, said Bruce Ottley, co-director of the International Aviation Law Institute at DePaul University.
The cases can be expensive for both sides, and airlines and aircraft manufacturers don’t want the bad publicity, so the vast majority are settled out of court, he said.
“To the extent that they don’t settle, they’re just fighting over the amount of the damages, rather than the liability itself,” he said. “It can tend to be a lucrative business because they tend not to go to trial.”
When it comes to representing plane crash victims, being there first matters.
“It’s always who has the first client, because the first client brings you more clients,” Kelly said. “So when (other law firms) don’t get it, they get upset, which is OK. I don’t care. They can say whatever.”
She doesn’t sound intimidated.
“They are like sharks. But I always say, they might be sharks, but I am a piranha from the Amazon who eats sharks for breakfast,” she said, laughing.
Kelly, a partner at the Ribbeck Law firm started by her brother Manuel von Ribbeck, figures that she has filed about 40 airline crash lawsuits representing people from 70 countries. She claims that no other firm in the world is currently involved with more plane crash cases than hers.
The firm, with seven lawyers and 12 staff members who mostly work from their homes instead of in an office near Navy Pier in Chicago, has offices in London, Shanghai, Istanbul and Lima, Peru, she said.
Though airline crashes happen all over the world, many lawsuits are filed in Chicago.
Kelly tries to keep cases in the U.S., which usually leads to larger settlements and awards. That means keying in on plane crashes involving Boeing Co., which makes such well-known commercial aircraft as the 737, 747 and 787 Dreamliner, as well as the 777, which was involved in the Malaysia Airlines and Asiana incidents. And because Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, she can file suits in her hometown.
She often does not handle cases when the maker of the crashed plane is the other major airliner producer, France-based Airbus, unless she can file a lawsuit in the U.S., she said. A Boeing spokesman declined to comment.
Some crash cases reap hundreds of thousands of dollars per victim, others millions. And lawyers get a cut, often 30 percent, she said.
Kelly didn’t set out to be an aviation disaster lawyer. The daughter of a lumber mill owner grew up in Peru until terrorism there in the 1980s got so bad that she and her siblings moved to Chicago, she said.
Kelly graduated from Loyola University Chicago College of Law and was searching for a career that would satisfy her desire to travel. She thought she would be a diplomat, she said.
But after joining her brother’s law firm in 2005, she was visiting in Peru with her son when a plane crashed. Since she was already there, her brother, experienced in aviation crash cases, encouraged her to check it out for possible litigation. Shortly after, she did the same with a crash in Indonesia, she said.
And a career was born.
She later attended the University of Oxford, took the bar in England and became a solicitor of England and Wales.
She can practice law in most of the European Union. The primary purpose of being recognized as a lawyer there is to deal with English-based insurance and re-insurance companies, such as Lloyd’s of London, she said.
Kelly knows that some people view her legal concentration as macabre, and she concedes that talking to crash victims’ families is emotionally difficult.
“Meeting people in these circumstances is hard, but you also give them hope and help them find out what happened,” she said.
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It’s especially difficult with parents of children who are victims.
Around the world, parents’ reaction is the same regardless of geography, education or social standing, she said.
“The pain that you feel when losing a child is the same in all cultures,” she said. “I personally do not like to meet with parents until a lot of time has passed by. I prefer to meet with the uncle, the aunt, the cousin. But not the parent. … There is nothing you can tell the parents to make them feel better.”
But some parents like the idea of using money Kelly wins for them to build something in the child’s memory _ a library and a dance studio are examples, she said.
“It’s comforting for them to know that if we’re able to get some compensation, that they could do something with that money on behalf of their children,” she said.
In-laws, on the other hand, are very easy to talk to.
“They couldn’t care less if you’re dead,” Kelly said bluntly. “They only want to know, ‘How much are we going to get?’ And it doesn’t matter from which country, either.”
“So remember that, all in-laws are evil,” she joked.
Because many cases are overseas and passengers might speak different languages, communicating with families can often be difficult. Although Kelly said she speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese and French, and understands Italian and limited Mandarin and Turkish, she often hires interpreters.
Dealing with so many airline crashes also takes a personal toll.
“I’m afraid of flying. I usually fly with wine,” she said, conceding that she often imbibes in-flight to help her cope. “When you fly, you remember all the things that could go wrong with the plane. … You learn so much that you cannot fly peacefully anymore.”
But she readily agrees that flying in the United States is quite safe, because the U.S., unlike some countries, enforces regulations about aircraft maintenance and pilot training. Although some U.S. aircraft fleets are relatively old, including those of megacarriers American Airlines and United Airlines, she feels safe because “the pilots are very good.”
Personally, she prefers to fly on airlines from the U.S., Germany and England.
Kelly knows what she does is controversial. In case she forgets, she regularly gets reams of hate email, her direct email address is listed on the law firm website. She gets mail from Boeing shareholders upset that her case might cause the company’s stock price to dip.
“I get emails saying, ‘I wish you were in the plane, dead.’ I’ve gotten used to it,” she said.
The most common objection? “Money for death,” she said. “You are profiting from the death of a person.
“That, of course, doesn’t sound good. But that’s what the law allows, and you’re compensating a loss that someone has suffered. And you’re trying to have some type of punishment against those who did it.
“It’s not that I am the evil person. I am just exercising the rights of families who want to (sue).”
How and when Kelly comes in contact with the family is a matter of controversy.
Last year, after the Asiana crash, the National Transportation Safety Board reportedly recommended that Illinois regulators investigate Kelly’s firm over allegations that its attorneys violated a U.S. law that prohibits uninvited solicitation of air crash victims in the first 45 days after a crash.
The 45-day rule is meant to give families a “cooling-off period” to make better decisions about hiring an attorney during a time of emotional trauma, said Ottley, the DePaul law professor.
“The families aren’t thinking straight in that situation,” he said. But what precisely constitutes recruiting can be a “fine line,” he said.
Kelly confirmed that state regulators were looking into the allegation of violating the 45-day rule but said that she did nothing wrong. She said her firm was invited to talk to victims, and that it would have been impossible to solicit them because they were in a heavily secured hotel.
“It was a super-secure area,” she said.
“It’s not like you could just walk in and talk to families,” said Kelly, adding that her firm has 117 clients from the Asiana crash, which she said is the most of any firm.
More broadly, she calls accusations “absolutely false” that she preys on vulnerable families distraught after a tragedy.
It is insurance companies that do the preying, she contends. They sometimes show up a couple of weeks after the crash, give a token amount of money and require victims’ families to sign away all their rights to sue in a global release of liability, she said.
“How does the 45-day law benefit the family? It benefits the insurance company,” she said.
“If it’s a week after the crash and they want to talk to me, I’ll talk to them. … I do not wait 45 days, because it will be too late,” Kelly said. “If people say that’s preying, well, too bad, because the families want to talk to me. And I don’t care what anyone is saying.”
The key is that families always contact her first, she said.
Kelly was recommended for censure this year by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission for allegedly continuing to try to represent a survivor of a 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in the Netherlands that killed nine and injured dozens of the 135 people onboard.
A survivor that Kelly’s firm was representing had sent a letter terminating the relationship, records show. Kelly has appealed the decision, with a hearing scheduled for Friday, according to the disciplinary commission. Concerning the same case, the disciplinary commission dismissed two other accusations of wrongdoing.
Ottley said such a censure amounts to a slap on the wrist, compared with revoking a law license for a period of time or permanently.
“That is the least serious of anything they can do,” he said.
Most lawyers wouldn’t bother appealing a censure, because there’s no harm to a law practice, but Kelly wants a spotless record, said George Collins, the Chicago attorney representing her at the commission. It’s “because other people in the business will attack her. She’s not male, she’s not a pilot, she’s not a member of the ‘club,’ ” Collins said. He added that her method of attracting clients, primarily referrals from local attorneys, is “totally lawful.”
“I think she’s a remarkably skillful and successful lawyer,” Collins said. “She looks like a young girl but, man, she is a potent lawyer.”
Kelly said she is comfortable with the ethics of what she does.
“Every time I see myself in the mirror, I see a decent person. We have never ripped off a client or stolen from a client,” she said.
She said she develops friendships with clients that last long after the case is over. Clients have invited her to dinner, tea, even to weddings. This month, she had plans to attend the wedding of a man whose parents died in a Turkish Airlines crash, she said.
“I am flying all the way to Turkey for his wedding … because we are friends now. We are almost like family,” she said. “It’s not like I get my share and that’s it.”
With all the settlements through the years, Kelly no longer needs to work for a living, she said. (She declined to give her age, but public records suggest she is 47.)
But she enjoys what she does.
“I have a great life. I don’t think I will ever retire.”