‘Don’t Let It Happen Again’

Terrence M. Connors on the challenge and responsibility of personal injury law

Published in 2009 Upstate New York Super Lawyers — September 2009

Terrence M. Connors is in the middle of a meeting at his office in downtown Buffalo’s Liberty Building when he pauses and says, “Let me show you something.”

He leads his visitors down the hallway toward a painting on the wall. “That’s my prized possession,” he says reverentially.

The beautifully rendered watercolor of swimmers standing by the side of a pool was painted by former professional diver Michael Murach after he sustained injuries that left him quadriplegic. Murach painted the piece with a brush clenched between his teeth.

Murach was a client and is one of the reasons why, after more than 30 years of high-stakes civil and criminal litigation, Connors still feels motivated and inspired by those he represents.

“I work every day with people’s real problems,” he says. “And they’re all different. One day we’re challenging the constitutionality of a statute, the next day we’re working for an injured worker. So for me, when I get in my car and I drive down Delaware Avenue on my way to the office, I’m always excited about what I’m going to tackle on my desk.”

He channels that excitement into rigorous preparation and passionate advocacy. In January of this year, he impressed New York State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita Jr. with his cross-examination of a doctor in a personal injury trial—displaying more knowledge about a particular type of fracture than the physician.

“It was one of the finest cross-examinations I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve been on the bench since 1976,” says Sedita, who made a point of learning more about Connors after the trial ended.

Connors’ summation amazed him as well. “I timed it. It was close to two hours, but it felt like five minutes,” Sedita says. “Everybody’s attention was riveted.

“He ranks in the top echelon, no question about it.”

Connors’ eclectic mix of clients include the colorful Tuscarora businessman “Smokin’” Joe Anderson, who admitted to giving $40,000 in checks to the former mayor of Niagara Falls in an effort to become a favored developer. Another is a retired judge who pleaded guilty to violating the federal Mann Act by transporting a prostitute to a party across state lines.

Connors chooses his cases carefully; he wants to know whether his advocacy can make a difference in a person’s life. That was certainly true for Michael Murach.

In college Murach resembled a young Robert Redford. Handsome and in peak condition, he was an artist and academic. He left school to become a stunt diver. While performing a comedic dive at the Fantasy Island recreational facility near Buffalo, he lost control, plunged backwards and hit his head on the side of the pool.

From then on, he was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down.

It took months of research, but Connors and his team were able to prove to a jury that the accident could have been prevented. In preparation, Connors and his young associate, Lawlor Quinlan, consulted experts coast to coast and dug into every regulation that dealt with diving and diving boards.

“That’s one situation where persistence really prevailed,” Connors says. “We were able to demonstrate that there were several violations of placement of the diving board that made it highly likely that if someone were to fall, they would injure themselves.”

In December 2003, the jury awarded Murach $58.6 million, the largest personal injury verdict in western New York court history. “But it was so much more than a big verdict,” Connors says. It can’t replace what he lost, but it affords Murach, now 40, some quality of life.

Connors fully understands the responsibility he has to clients with such devastating injuries.

“In some respects, you’re their only hope for something positive to come from out of the tragedy,” he says. “It’s why we work weekends. It’s a huge burden, but it’s a terrific reward when you can do something to ameliorate their condition.”

Connors rose to the top of his profession in a relatively short period of time. In 1989, the first year he was eligible (to be considered), he was inducted as a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Membership is by invitation only and limited to 1 percent of the lawyers in each state.

He attributes a large part of his success to luck and persistence. “What we do is not brain surgery, though we do learn all about it,” Connors says. “If you persist and you stay committed to it, you’re going to have your successes. With a little luck, you get more than your share, which is what happened to me, I think.”

Born and raised in Queens, Connors had a basketball scholarship to Canisius College, a Jesuit school in western New York. “I think I chose Canisius because I liked their basketball uniforms,” he says. “That’s a good, smart reason when you’re 17.” He and Anthony Masiello, who grew up to be mayor of Buffalo, were co-captains and roommates. Connors says he was Masiello’s right-hand man for the 12 years he was in office.

Graduating with an English degree, he went on to the University at Buffalo Law School. In his second year of law school, he met a nurse named Peggy who was on duty in the emergency room where Connors landed one night after a bar fight. “As I recall, the other end of it was several football players, which doesn’t say much about my discretion,” he says.

It took about eight stitches to mend the damage. “I lost the fight but got the girl,” he says. He and Peggy dated for 16 years before they married. Next year, they’ll celebrate 40 years together. They have a son, Matthew, who graduated from Cornell University in May.

Connors was admitted to the New York Bar in the mid-1970s and joined Damon & Morey, a Buffalo law firm. He and Lawrence J. Vilardo started Connors & Vilardo in 1986. “A lot of people look back on their careers and say, ‘Did I make the right career choice? Is my path the correct way to go?’ I’ve never had that feeling. I wouldn’t change my occupation if you gave me the choice of any occupation in the country.”

Connors serves as trial counsel for the Roman Catholic Diocese in Buffalo. He’s frequently asked by reporters to comment on high-profile cases, and he’s been the legal analyst for Buffalo’s WIVB-TV Channel 4 even before the O.J. Simpson case in 1995.

In 1999, he went toe-to-toe with Simpson’s attorney, Johnnie Cochran, who came to Buffalo to try a case with racial overtones. They were adversaries, but they respected one another, says Connors, who held firm to his client’s settlement offer despite Cochran’s legendary charm.

Connors has mixed feelings, however, about one of his recent victories, this one on behalf of his longtime secretary who injured herself in a fall at her condominium. “Unfortunately,” he says with mock chagrin, “I got her a million dollars for her fall so she’s not coming back to work. Talk about bittersweet. Twenty-eight years we were together. She’s like a sister to me.”

To Connors, the beauty of litigation is being able to make a difference. “We can make a change where it’s warranted. Those changes don’t come about voluntarily. Or they would have been done already.”

When he goes to trial on behalf of three families of victims killed in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, he will be ready with reams of questions to try to get to the bottom of the tragedy.

The case struck an emotional chord for him when he attended a three-day public hearing that the National Transportation Safety Board held in May in Washington, D.C. “Just being in that room and being with all of the families and friends of the families who have suffered a profound and devastating loss was a historic event in my life and career,” he says. “You see that much grief in one room. You see how many people were impacted by it.”

The case will be an opportunity to help prevent similar accidents in the future. It’s no secret that that is what the families want, he says. “They all say the same thing: Do whatever you can to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. That’s a pretty big obligation. It’s a pretty big responsibility. But that’s the challenge.”

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