Charles the Fourth: a.k.a. "Mike"
Charles Joseph Cronan IV on Nos. I, II and III; the beginning of health care law; and how a boyhood love for fire engines led him to a game-changing case
Published in 2012 Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine — August 2012 on August 21, 2012
Updated on October 14, 2019
Q: Your name is a lot to fit on a business card.
A: It is. I go by Mike, actually.
Q: Is that a family name?
A: I got the nickname Mike from my father, who was in the Philippines during World War II when I was born—he was Charles Joseph Cronan the III—and my mother wanted to name me after him, which would have made me the fourth. He thought that was pretentious, but she did it anyway. So when he got home, he just started calling me Mike. As long as I can remember, my name has been Mike. And I know instantly when someone calls and they want to speak to Charlie or Chuck, they have no clue who they’re calling.
Q: Are the Cronans lawyers by trade?
A: No. Dad was an independent insurance agent. My grandfather—Charles Joseph Cronan Jr.—graduated from law school in 1917. But the same day he graduated, he also went on active duty in World War I. When he got back from war, he never practiced. He went into insurance.
Q: Do you know anything about the original?
A: He was the son of first-generation Irish immigrants. He did not go to law school, but he was the sheriff of Harrison County, Kentucky, and he ran for mayor in 1917 on the Democratic ticket, and lost.
Q: So what drew you to the law?
A: I was interested in politics, I majored in government in college, and I took a course in constitutional law in college which I really liked.
Q: And after law school, you went straight to the Navy.
A: Yes. Part of my duties there were as a defense counsel and then as a prosecutor and a brief stint as a judge. I really liked the litigation part, more so than appeals and counseling.
Q: Given your family’s history of service, did you consider staying?
A: I did think about it, but ultimately wanted to get back to Kentucky and family. I thoroughly enjoyed my four years in Navy JAG. One of the things I was a little concerned about was that I was going to be behind my peers who graduated and went right into practice, but in retrospect, it was a great opportunity. The quality of justice in the Navy is excellent. And the lawyers that I worked with, I thought they were superb.
Q: What was it like stepping into a civil courtroom after the Navy?
A: [Laughs.] There were two things in the Navy that were drilled into us. One: You never went in court without the Manual for Courts-Martial. And you never approached the bench without asking permission, and you certainly never touched the bench. The first day that I walked into a civil courtroom was for a motions hour. I walked in with the Rules of Civil Procedure under my arm, and I saw one of my classmates from law school, who is now a federal judge, and he asked me what I was doing with the rule book with me. I told him it was because I was there on a motion. And he just rolled on the floor in laughter that anyone would show up with the rule book. Then I watched people go up and put their elbows right on the bench! I was aghast.
Q: Tell me about your practice.
A: Originally it was all ligation, primarily insurance defense, automobile liability stuff. Then it progressed into medical malpractice defense, and then into products liability defense, and then into commercial litigation. Along the way, I was asked to handle an administrative matter for the Jefferson County Medical Society, which was working with the local narcotic squad to investigate the sale of amphetamines by a physician. The Society proceeded to kick that physician out … My involvement initially was when the Medical Society wanted to expel him, so I handled that procedure. Then I started doing other kinds of administrative work.
But the watershed event within medicine, as far as my involvement, was Arizona v. Maricopa County Medical Society, which was about antitrust law applied to physicians. That case sort of set the ball in motion for me and many lawyers for what evolved to be health care law.
Q: So you got in on the ground floor with health care?
A: That’s fair to say. [Maricopa] forced medical societies which had been doing such things as fee reviews for insurance companies to look for creative ways to restructure their services to members and insurers. The application of antitrust laws to doctors was a relatively new concept.
It wasn’t only that case, it was a whole series of things. As Medicare became more regulated, as antitrust started to apply to medicine … this was in the early ’80s. Lawyers who were doing estate planning and worked with physicians, or lawyers who did real estate transactions with physicians, they started getting calls from physicians to advise them on matters unrelated to the initial exposure. So my litigation sort of morphed into health law, and now it’s a mix of civil litigation and health care law advising physicians, physician groups and hospitals on regulation matters.
Q: You have a firehouse and fire engine on your property. Tell me about that.
A: The “firehouse” is really our garage that I tore the front off of and extended by 8 feet in length and raised the rafters to about 10 feet so that I could get a fire engine in it. It’s a 1956 … I actually found newspaper articles about it when it was new, and I got all of the order forms for it to show what the specs were and the delivery materials and books on the engine.
[My fascination with fire trucks] started as a kid. I grew up going to the fire department with my dad [who was a volunteer]. I would go with him when I was 6 years old, then I was in the firehouse on my own right, and I stayed in while I was in college. When I moved back after the Navy I rejoined and stayed active for a long time.
Q: And that fascination actually led you to a huge case.
A: Yes. The game-changer for me was the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire litigation.
That was on Memorial Day weekend 1977. There were a huge number of deaths. It was a nightclub and a supper club, and there was a fire in the night club. Stan Chesley and the plaintiffs’ lead counsel committee initiated the litigation, and they sued literally every flammable object in the club, including aluminum wiring, which they claimed caused the fire.
Q: That sounds complex.
A: Yes. The claims in that case were pretty much unprecedented.
A year after the fire, the firm was contacted by Anaconda Aluminum, which had been sued along with a few other aluminum wire manufactures. I went to that senior partner and said, “I know something about it, I’m a volunteer firefighter, I’d be really interested in working on the case,” and so that lead to my involvement. I pretty much lived in Cincinnati and commuted on weekends to the chagrin of my wife during that trial.
So for the aluminum wire industry, for example, this was pretty much the first time any plaintiffs’ lawyer had claimed that he didn’t have to prove whose wire started the fire. In other words, he didn’t have to identify Anaconda or any of the other wire manufacturers as being the specific cause of the fire, and the theory was, as an industry, all of them made an inherently dangerous product. So if he could prove aluminum wire was inherently dangerous, he didn’t have to show which one [started the fire] because all the evidence was destroyed.
He did that same theory with aluminum with PVC wire installation, polyurethane foam, which was the chair cushion material, the wall coverings … anything that was flammable.
I was a relatively new lawyer at least in civil practice, and I got to play a really substantial role in that case. It was a great opportunity to work with other lawyers, to be on the cutting-edge of a new theory of liability. I served on the lead counsel committee and was selected as one of two of about 10 defense counsel to make closing argument.
Q: What happened?
A: We got a defense verdict. It was then overturned … In opening statements, Chesley told jurors that if aluminum wire was used in connection to electrical outlets in buildings it was not a question of if there would be a fire, it was only a question of when. Jurors are instructed by the court that they have to decide the case based only on the evidence offered at trial. They are not to conduct their own research or talk to others about the case. After the jury found for the aluminum wire defendants, the local newspaper interviewed the jurors. One volunteered he had gone home after hearing Chesley's opening statement and found he had aluminum wiring in his home, but did not experience any problems with it. This was a violation of the court's admonition not to conduct any independent research.
The case was retried several years after the first defense verdict. After several weeks of trial the parties settled so the case never went to a jury on the retrial. My wife sat me down for a talk after that, though, and asked if I wanted to be a hot-shot trial lawyer or help raise my children. I made the right choice.
Q: You’ve spent your entire career at the same firm, since 1974.
A: This is also my 45th wedding anniversary. I don’t make changes easily. (Laughs.) I really enjoy what I do and the people I get to practice with—especially the younger lawyers who are smart and as talented as can be. I am not in a hurry to get out the door, but the firm has an age 70 retirement policy so I am thinking about it.
Q: And if you do retire?
A: I’d spend more time with family … my wife, Maryanne, my four children—three boys and a girl—and six grandchildren. [My daughter] Sarah is the only lawyer … she’s doing health care law with me. I absolutely love having her in the firm.
But for now, every case is like a new story. I enjoy getting into the facts of the case and finding out what’s happened and why it’s happened. And I suspect it’s something like researching history. I’ve thought about what I’m going to do after I’m done actively practicing and I think historical research of some kind, either genealogical or another type, could be pretty interesting.