The Trial Lawyer's Gift to America

After September 11, the threat of lawsuits hung over the American economy — until Leo Boyle and the trial lawyers took over

Published in 2004 Massachusetts Super Lawyers — November 2004

Like most of us, Leo Boyle remembers what he was doing the morning of September 11, 2001. Unlike most of us, however, Boyle took one look at CNN and immediately got to work. As president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), Boyle knew the tragedy would have a direct effect on him and his profession.

“It struck me that everything in the world was going to change,” he recalls, “and it seemed the legal system could not be immune.”

Leo Boyle, of the Boston firm Meehan, Boyle, Black & Fitzgerald, isn’t one of these type-A hyper-achievers who grew up with blinders on, his eyes fixed on a career goal. Like any normal, red-blooded baby-boomer boy growing up in Pawtucket, R.I., in the ’50s, Boyle was primarily interested in sports. And today he doesn’t come across as the stereotype of the over-caffeinated lawyer on permanent overdrive. His speech is slow and measured; his demeanor calming and friendly. Boyle has an amicable aura, and it’s perhaps this aspect of his personality, in addition to what must be a singular devotion to his clients and an uncommon level of skill, that has enabled him to win millions for his clients in jury awards.

Highlights of his career include winning $26 million in damages for a Massachusetts man driving a minivan with defective brakes. “It was important to hear ‘it wasn’t you who killed your family,’” his client Paul Santos told the Boston Globe after the trial. (The car was designed so the rear brakes could lock before the front ones, causing a spin-out which had led to the fatalities; Santos had pumped the brakes, just like they teach you in driver’s ed., to no avail.) Another was winning a first-of-its-kind indictment of a college fraternity on manslaughter charges for failing to curb binge drinking after repeated citations, leading to the death of a student. A civil suit enabled by the indictment brought $7.75 million to the boy’s family.

“Every case, to me, is the biggest case in the world when I’m working on it,” Boyle says. “If I get a $100,000 verdict for a client who needs it and the degree of difficulty is high, that feels as good as any million-dollar verdict.” He knows the cases the press focuses on are the record-breakers and precedent-setters. “But the most gratifying work I’ve done was pro bono.”

And the most valuable pro bono work in history was set up by Boyle. He knew the 9/11 property damage would be in the tens of billions, the potential punitive awards for those who’d lost family, countless. But the insurance on the airplanes, he’d soon find out, topped out at $3.2 billion each. “The system couldn’t handle it,” he recalls. “Moreover, we needed to establish some discipline in the profession, so we could move forward in a coordinated, helpful way.” The solution he and the others in ATLA came up with was simple and went to the root of the situation.

Boyle called for a moratorium on lawsuits. “It was extraordinary,” he says, “because it had no force of law, and yet it worked.” With the moratorium honored by the association’s membership, Boyle had the respect of a Republican Congress when he approached leaders about legislating a victims’ compensation fund. “Everyone took a breath and slowed down,” says Boyle. “And that discipline and restraint created the climate to start talking about the fund.”

It became part of the airline bailout bill — a rider that became far more important to those directly affected by the attacks than the law to which it was attached. Under Boyle’s direction, ATLA then set up a legal services organization that has helped 1,700 families get compensation. “Our clients will have received $2.2 billion to $2.3 billion in recovery. Between $200 million and $300 million in legal services have been donated,” Boyle says, his voice swelling with pride. “So that felt good.”

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