Lessons from the Five-and-Dime
Lexington attorney Peter Perlman learned early in life that one person can have an outsized impact on others
Published in 2017 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine on December 7, 2016
Peter Perlman learned about charity from his parents’ quiet example. He remembers how cash-strapped customers would put future Christmas gift purchases on layaway at his family’s five-and-dime store in South Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
“A lot of times, come Christmas, they didn’t have the money, so I wound up—sometimes walking, sometimes taking my bike—delivering people’s layaways, and if they didn’t have the money, my dad would give it to them,” he recalls. “In addition, he would clear out the toy shelves, and any kid that didn’t get a toy for Christmas, my dad said it was ‘inventory clearance,’ but really, it was to help kids that didn’t have a Christmas.”
The Lexington-based trial attorney has always had a soft spot for kids. Last year, he bought toys on sale to give away at Christmas through a local church to a handful of local families in need. Back in the mid-1970s, Perlman chaired the fundraising efforts for a playground at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital suitable for children of all abilities.
And about 30 years ago, a TV commercial for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program caught his eye with its use of a famous quote of uncertain origin: “No man stands as tall as when he stoops to help a child.” The father of three daughters decided to get involved by mentoring two boys. Perlman engaged the boys in sports and other recreational activities, taking the opportunity to offer advice and guidance along the way. “That was really rewarding.”
Helping others is hard-wired into Perlman’s DNA.
On the legal end, that has included advocating for equal treatment of girls and women in sports—as required by Title IX—while serving as president in 2000-2001 of a trial lawyers organization now known as Public Justice. He also ensured that the lessons of a catastrophic plane crash wouldn’t be forgotten after the court case was settled, and lobbied for millions of consumers’ rights to seek recourse should their cars malfunction, causing injury or death.
“I’ve always believed the mark of character is that you do things because they’re the right thing to do—not necessarily because they’re going to be headlines,” he says. Back in college, for instance, while working as a lifeguard at a local pool, he taught swimming free of charge to kids who couldn’t afford lessons. He later did the same for prisoners at the state penitentiary.
After the 2006 crash of Comair Flight 5191, in which a jet took off from the wrong Lexington runway and killed 49 people, Perlman was on a team that won compensation for the families of victims. But he didn’t stop there. “We worked with the parents, the survivors, and put together a little booklet of the facts and mistakes that were made by the airlines and by the pilots.”
Lessons from 5191 was sent to the Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board, Comair and others. Its content was also published in newspapers across the country. “I guarantee you that generated a whole lot more attention and made a whole lot more difference than if a bunch of lawyers had a press conference about what we did,” Perlman says.
The FAA did eventually take action, such as banning flight takeoffs from unlighted runways, requiring pilots to receive specific clearance from controllers for each runway intersection, upgrading runway markings and lighting, and implementing policies to combat fatigue among air-traffic controllers.
And in 2009, when Chrysler and General Motors petitioned for bankruptcy, Perlman—with support from state attorneys general including Kentucky’s Jack Conway—successfully lobbied the carmakers to assume liability for personal injuries, which they had tried to avoid.
“Millions of people would have been deprived of a remedy in court if these bankruptcies would have gone through with that provision,” Perlman says. “Every time I hear of somebody that’s been seriously injured in a vehicle that precedes 2009, I feel like I had something to do with them getting their day in court.”