The Aviator

Jon Kettles is the guy to call when something happens in the sky

Published in 2012 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2012

Photo by: Jeremy Enlow

Jon Kettles works hands-on and often high up in the sky. Heading up the Dallas-based Kettles Law Firm, his area of expertise is aviation law, specifically aviation accident law. He represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits after airplane, helicopter and airline crashes, often going up against airlines and their insurance companies, and even the government. This is a guy who doesn’t intimidate easily and he certainly isn’t afraid of flying.

He grew up in an aviation family, in the Gulf of Mexico, where his father flew offshore for 30 years, and with a brother who would become a helicopter pilot. Kettles has a degree in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University. A graduate of the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, which publishes the oldest journal dedicated to aviation law, he also has a Master of Science in Business Administration from Boston University. He’s a trained engineer and accomplished aviator, holding the highest pilot and flight instructor ratings the Federal Aviation Administration gives out—the Airline Transport Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor-Instrument ratings—in airplanes and helicopters. He also was a pilot/engineer in the Engineering Division of the U.S. Army Safety Center, which is responsible for investigating Army aviation accidents. As an Army Captain, he flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, fixed-wing reconnaissance on the East German border and was an Army helicopter pilot on the Demilitarized Zone in Korea.

But make no mistake, qualified as he is, each case still represents a steep challenge. “My role is to figure out what happened and why.  And every single defense lawyer I’m up against is sharp, very well trained, very well prepared, and their first approach is volume. Usually there’s five of them.”

But that’s not his biggest concern. That would be uncovering the information his opponents have. Aren’t they required to disclose it? “Yes, but they don’t. There’s enough gray area where you’ve got to work awful hard to hold them accountable. You have to work hard to get them to do what they’re required to. The way the [National Transportation Safety Board] process works is they rely heavily on industry representatives, which means the defendant and their representatives get to peek inside the tent. The same rules that lets [them have] access to investigation information, those same rules specifically exclude [plaintiff’s attorneys]. So we automatically start way behind. It’s a broken system. I have yet to see an insurance company do anything they don’t absolutely have to do. The compensation system is a function of responsibility. And until responsibility is established, they don’t, in my 24 years of doing this, pay up. Occasionally, they’ll step up and [make] a token offer. But that usually does nothing more than [antagonize] the people they’re talking to. It’s rarely a good faith offer to resolve a claim or compensate people. They just want to get something off their spreadsheet.”

What Kettles does have in his favor, though, is the common man and woman who are more apt to imagine themselves in the place of the plaintiff than be worried about saving airlines money.  “Fortunately, the biggest safety factor we have in litigation is the process [whereby] jurors figure it out. They decide what’s fair.”

Here’s where being hands-on helps. In a case involving helicopter hydraulics, he had experience flying a particular model machine. He went to the top of an Idaho mountain for a look-see at the crash site. “I get personally involved in all my cases,” says Kettle”

And it tends to pay off. He’s regarded as one of the top aviation lawyers in the land. It’s allowed him to be very selective in the cases he takes.

“One of the benefits of [my] type of work is I don’t have to represent someone if I don’t believe in their case.  When people come to me, they’re usually in one of the worst times of their lives. I believe I help improve things for them when they’re in a situation where nobody else is doing that for them. It’s a tough job, but I can sleep at night knowing I believe in what I’m doing.”

Photo by: Jeremy Enlow

Photo by: Jeremy Enlow

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