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Bruce Kehoe has a 30,000-foot perspective on his career

Published in 2010 Indiana Super Lawyers — March 2010

Indianapolis personal injury attorney Bruce Kehoe of Wilson, Kehoe & Winingham wears many hats—he’s a physical therapist who became a lawyer who became a pilot. And he keeps them all within reach in his work; he represents the victims of aviation accidents, medical malpractice, birth traumas and other disasters.

Take, for instance, a recent case he settled against the Federal Aviation Administration on behalf of three sibling survivors of a plane crash that killed their parents. Two of the three children sustained significant spinal injuries. “My piloting skills as well as my medical experience through the practice of physical therapy certainly helped the case,” Kehoe says. The case was settled, he says, commensurate with Indiana’s wrongful death and injury recovery statutes.

It wasn’t dissatisfaction with his physical therapy career that made Kehoe enroll in law school—quite the opposite. After graduating from Indiana University, Kehoe spent his first four years as a physical therapist working at Shawano Community Hospital (now Shawano Medical Center) near Green Bay, Wis. “It was a lovely resort community up there and I had just a terrific time,” he says. “I worked with the Green Bay Packers’ team of orthopedic surgeons and would do outpatient work for them. That community also adjoined the Menominee and Stockbridge Indian reservations, neither of which had health care services on site, so we had quite a unique patient base.”

He loved rehabilitating the seriously injured, which offered him a glimpse of what a career in law might be like. “I had a couple of patients who had been in vehicular accidents and I had to give some input to their lawyers,” he says. “I was glad to be helpful and I started to think going to law school might be pretty neat.” Kehoe also had lots of physician friends and he felt strongly about their positive impact on the community. When he made the decision to return to IU to enter law school at the Indianapolis campus, it was physicians like his friends that he envisioned helping with a career in medical malpractice defense. “I presumed I would go back to Wisconsin to work,” he says. “It didn’t exactly go that way.”

In his second year of law school, Kehoe clerked with a personal injury firm, Wilson, Tabor & Holland, and tried plaintiff law. “I found that was my calling,” he says. “It was my philosophical comfort zone. It was compatible with my personality. Being a physical therapist, that’s a people-helping profession, and being a plaintiff’s lawyer is a people-helping profession. It was just a natural transition for me. Plus, I was certainly no stranger to reviewing a hospital chart, so it made my job that much easier.”

His first jury trial convinced him that he’d made the right choice. He sued a construction company on behalf of a 7-year-old girl named Heidi, who had suffered a severe brain injury when a large commercial truck owned by the defendant disregarded a stop sign and plowed into the car in which she was riding. “The first witness I ever examined in court was a neuropsychologist, which can be a difficult task for even an experienced lawyer,” Kehoe says. “We did an in-courtroom exam and demonstration with Heidi—sometimes those go well and sometimes they don’t––think about the bloody glove. We took off Heidi’s brace and demonstrated her gait, the problem she had walking. We had her catch and throw a ball. But the most dramatic moment was when I untied her shoes and sat her on a chair right in front of the jury and said, ‘Heidi, can you tie your shoes?’ She struggled, but she did get them tied—but absolutely everyone could see that someone was going to have to go back and retie them five minutes later. That was pretty strong, pretty powerful communication.”

The jury returned a $2 million verdict, the first of several multimillion-dollar decisions Kehoe has won in his career. “In 1982, that was unusual,” he says. “I believe it was the first million-dollar personal injury verdict in Indiana. But I was fortunate to have cut my teeth on that kind of case, and I was spoiled at a very early stage of my career by working with Harry Wilson.”

Wilson, a highly respected general aviation lawyer, passed away in 2004, but not before imparting his love of the law and flying to Kehoe. Kehoe began his legal career with Wilson’s firm—Wilson, Tabor & Holland—and eventually moved with Wilson to his new firm, where Kehoe is a partner today. “In my nearly 30 years as a trial lawyer, I’ve had just two partners: Harry Wilson and Bill Winingham,” he says. “That’s a great thing, you know. We’ve always said that if there’s a dime on the floor, it goes in the till. You don’t have to worry about your partners because they’re honest people and you pull for one another.”

In the early days of Kehoe’s career, Wilson would fly the two of them all over the country to take depositions and interview prospective clients or expert witnesses—with the occasional stopover to play blackjack in Vegas or enjoy a Cajun dinner in New Orleans. “Harry was a real aviator,” Kehoe says. “He flew jets in the military and was a very skilled pilot, and was one of the best aviation lawyers in the country. But he had open-heart surgery at a very young age—he had one of the early bypass-type procedures done at the Mayo Clinic. It wouldn’t be unusual for the two of us to work all day in the office and then get in his airplane and take off for the East Coast. And for me to be doing that with a man who’s had two open-heart surgeries struck me as pretty risky behavior. If I was going to keep doing it, I needed to know how to fly an airplane.”

His firm agreed, especially because they needed more support in general aviation work, so they paid for him to study for his pilot’s license. Kehoe began flying on his own in 1990, and he purchased a plane that he now flies about 150 hours a year, most of it for firm business.

“It gives you a lot of advantages,” he says. “Having access to an airplane got me home to put my kids to bed many, many times, and I’ve really appreciated that.”

That was important during some of his biggest cases, which often separated him from his family but paid satisfying dividends in terms of advancements in product safety. One such case involved a young teenage boy named Jason, who was driving home late one night in 1992 after watching a movie with his girlfriend when he ran into the side of a tractor-trailer truck making a left-hand turn. The trailer of the truck was not marked with retro-reflective safety tape, and Jason’s car rammed underneath, critically injuring him.

“He never saw it coming,” Kehoe says. “We sued the trucking company and the trailer manufacturer. Jason’s was one of two cases that played a principal role in getting retro-reflective taping put on trailers. We spent some time in Washington lobbying the transportation safety folks to mandate that tape, which of course was fought by the industry—it cost about $123 per truck to install.”

Jason’s brain injuries proved severe enough to cause chronic problems and depression; eventually he took his own life. But the legacy of his case was a ruling from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that mandated the installation of retro-reflective tape on heavy trailers. “It was a tragedy,” Kehoe says. “It’s hard for me to see that tape on a semi trailer and not remember Jason.”

Another hallmark of Kehoe’s career was the case of an 18-month-old Indiana boy named Billy, who suffered disfiguring burns when his brother accidentally started a house fire. The brother was playing with a gun-shaped charcoal lighter given away as a gas-station promotion for cigarettes. “The lighters are still on the market today—they’re fascinating for children,” he says. “We ended up representing about five other families across the country who had deaths or tragedies from the same product.”

The litigation was a long slog. “I had to travel extensively for that one,” Kehoe says. “A lot of the work was done in California and some of it was done in Japan, and it was the most physically demanding three or four years of my career. I remember one time waking up on the floor of an airplane—I had passed out.” Luckily, he was only a passenger on that particular flight, but the crew considered making an emergency landing for his health. “They were afraid I was having a heart attack,” he says, “but I had just keeled over from exhaustion. I canceled the depositions for that day and got some rest and went on. But that case was a hard-fought battle, I’ll tell you.”

Kehoe and his colleagues had evidence that the company that manufactured the lighters knew how attractive they were to children but did nothing about it. “They had the design [for a child-resistant feature],” he says. “They already had cost estimates of literally about 7 cents a lighter to add the child-resistant feature and they just didn’t do it.” The case was confidentially settled in one of the most significant recoveries ever obtained by Kehoe’s firm, he says, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission mandated safety features on new lighters based on the litigation and the publicity it received.

“In our office that feature is called ‘the Billy Button,’” Kehoe says. “It’s truly saved many, many a family from enormous tragedy.”

Kehoe has done the same.

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