Aviation defense lawyer Bill Katt avoids the cockpit but goes full throttle in the courtroom
Published in 2011 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine on November 14, 2011
As one of the busiest aviation defense lawyers in the country, Bill J. Katt thought it might be smart, not to mention fun, to take flying lessons. But just before earning his pilot’s license he changed his mind—troubled by a case involving the death of a pilot in a small aircraft in Minnesota.
“The guy was about my age,” says Katt, a founding partner at Leib & Katt. “He and his buddy were going to try and go down to their kids’ hockey game. They flew out at 6 in the morning in bad weather and he ended up crashing the airplane and dying. He had a really nice family, and the kids and the spouse reminded me a lot of my family.
“My classes were getting to be just another appointment,” he adds. “One of the things they teach you as a pilot is to evaluate yourself. You got to go out there clearheaded. If you’re looking at this as an obligation, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
The father of four, and grandfather of four more, decided to play it safe and stopped short of getting his license.
But playing it safe is something Katt rarely does in the courtroom.
“He was one of those guys who was never afraid to go to trial,” says Terry Davczyk, Katt’s mentor and friend, about Katt’s beginnings. “Bill did not shy away.”
“Bill happens to be one of those rare breeds who can get on a complicated case and not be afraid of trying it,” says Dennis Doody, former director of claims at United States Aviation Underwriters Inc. in New York, among the largest such companies in the country, and one of Katt’s regular clients.
“There are many attorneys who are litigators,” says Samuel J. Leib, co-founder of Leib & Katt. “To take the next step and actually try a big case with big issues, complex issues, is a different skill than just being a litigator. Bill has that skill in spades.”
Katt has a more modest view of his skills. “I never considered myself that great of a negotiator,” he says with a laugh. “My shtick always was, ‘Look, this is what I got, and this is what I’ll pay. And if you want to go to trial, let’s try it.’”
He also doesn’t regret the pilot’s license slipping away. “That can be helpful, initially, but you’re not hiring a pilot,” Katt says. “You’re hiring somebody who has trial skills, who can put a trial together.
“And you always have to think trial,” he adds.
Katt grew up in Sheboygan, the youngest of six children. His father was a small businessman who ran gas stations, garages and a car wash, and Katt worked for the family’s tire and auto store through college.
He attended Calvin College, a small Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich., intent on studying engineering. “I lasted three days in engineering class,” he says with a laugh. “I got the assignments and I’m going, ‘This is way too complicated for me.’” Instead, he specialized in 20th century American history. Then a friend told him about his adventures at law school in Miami. “I said, ‘You know, that sounds kind of interesting,’” Katt remembers.
Though the first semester of law school was a rude awakening—“It takes a while for your mind to click on,” he says—getting a clerkship that first summer, at Kasdorf, Lewis & Swietlik, which handled mostly insurance defense, made all the difference. “They had me doing everything,” Katt says. “I went everywhere. I went to doctors’ offices to get medical records, I served subpoenas all over town, I got chased in my car, I had to locate people, I had to take statements from people who didn’t want to give statements.”
People noticed he was pretty good at it.
“Bill was smart. From the very beginning I recognized that,” says Davczyk. “It became evident that he had a great personality and got that across to jurors. He came across as humble and likeable.”
After graduation in 1979, Davczyk hired him. “It was a great place for me to learn to try cases, which young lawyers don’t get a chance to do now,” Katt says. “I tried a ton of automobile liability cases. We represented a bus company and I tried a bunch of those kinds of cases.”
Even opposing lawyers admired his work. “Bill is intelligent, he’s an excellent communicator and very comfortable in the courtroom,” says Don Prachthauser, who went up against Katt in a personal injury case involving a truck driver. “I was really impressed. It just happened that the jury went with my client. They could have very easily gone in his favor.”
“He’s highly regarded in the legal community,” adds personal injury attorney Lynn Laufenberg. “He’s an extremely effective advocate and connects well with juries. He identifies his theme and stays with it.”
One of Katt’s insurance cases involved a boy who was hit by a car after he got off his school bus; he was disabled for life.
“It was a hard-fought case,” recalls Laufenberg, who represented the boy’s family. “Bill very much acknowledged the tragedy for the family. The entire courtroom was sympathetic. But this was one of those cases where the facts decided the apportionment of fault.”
“These are sad cases,” Katt says. “When you’re a defense lawyer, the plaintiffs on the other side are sympathetic people. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re responsible for the injuries.”
Slowly he began working products liability defense, too. He won a high-profile case defending the makers of a cooling tower accused of being responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 1986 that caused two deaths.
But his big break came defending the makers of Bic disposable lighters, who were being sued by plaintiffs across the country claiming they got severe burns because of a flaw in the lighter. Katt successfully defended Bic in 1995 in the case of a Wisconsin child who was burned.
Two things happened after he won the case: 1) He received a case of wine from Bruno Bich, then-CEO of the company and son of the famed ballpoint pen maker, who shipped it from his vineyard in France; and 2) the door opened to aviation law.
A lawyer for Bic happened to be golfing in San Francisco with Doody of United States Aviation Underwriters, and Doody asked about lawyers in Wisconsin. Without hesitation, the Bic lawyer recommended Katt.
Doody’s case involved a man who suffered a back injury in a crash involving a small Piper aircraft. The plaintiff argued it was pilot error and sued for damages.
“This was a very, very difficult case,” Doody recalls. “We were desperately trying to settle it.”
Desperate or not, the research and preparation helped hook Katt on aviation law. “I loved it,” he says. “I went and fooled around with airplanes like a little kid. We went up and flew around in a couple different Pipers and figured out the flight path and the whole thing—I mean, that’s fun. That’s just cool stuff.”
His memories of the plaintiff’s lawyers are less enthusiastic. “They really were pretty cocky,” he recalls. “They’d been offered good money, and we had it all offered out there right up until the end.”
Instead the case went to trial. “We won, walked away and paid nothing,” Katt says.
“That was a bellwether case for us,” Doody says.
It was a bellwether case for Katt as well. Afterward, he and Leib, whom he’d met in a hotel-fire case in Racine, started their own firm, and Katt began to focus on aviation cases.
Among his cases was the crash in which Chicago radio host Bob Collins’ plane collided with another small plane in Waukegan, Ill., leaving Collins and two others dead. The case sparked multiple lawsuits and Katt was hired to represent Collins’ insurer. “Then the government got sued in the case, and they sued the controllers. There were a lot of lawyers in that case. It settled relatively reasonably,” Katt says. “There just wasn’t that much insurance to go around.”
He also represented Delta Air Lines Inc. in a rare class action suit claiming passengers suffered emotional distress during an emergency landing in Salt Lake City. No one was physically hurt during the incident.
“A day before the statue of limitations runs out, this one person files a claim against Delta claiming emotional distress, all these problems that she’s had since then,” Katt says. “The plaintiff’s attorneys were successful in getting the case certified as a class action. Most of these people didn’t even know they were in the case. In fact, it’s the first class action that was ever certified against an airline in the U.S.”
Katt was brought in to replace another set of defense attorneys. “We got that case turned around and settled for—it’s confidential—but really, peanuts,” he says. They also got the class decertified.
More recently, Katt defended a case for Comair, which is owned by Delta. The airline was sued by the survivors of a man who died of cardiac arrest as the plane was descending into LaGuardia Airport from Savannah, Ga. “The claim against us was that we didn’t apply an AED [automated external defibrillator] to him, or provide some other first aid to him, and that we didn’t get him down fast enough,” Katt says. “The medical issues were really interesting because the guy had had prior health problems, so it was a question of, ‘Would an AED even have done any good to the guy?’”
No trial. “We were happy with our settlement,” Katt says. “The client was happy. That’s what I care about.”
Perks come with the job. For the Delta case, as part of his preparation, Katt flew in a simulator to recreate the emergency landing at LaGuardia to see if different flight paths could have landed the plane more quickly. “That’s the first time I’ve been in a simulator,” he says, adding, “I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been all over LaGuardia, I’ve been all over Kennedy. I’ve been up in helicopters, airplanes, control towers.
“It’s like when you’re a little boy. I always wondered, ‘What’s back there?’ Well, then you get to go in.”
“Bill is a rare breed,” Leib says. “He’s a lover of life. He works hard, and the clients and cases mean a lot to him.”
So after studying countless plane crashes, and combing over horrific evidence in many cases, does Katt have a fear of flying? “No,” he says. “Not at all.”