Flight Path

Geoff Grindeland saved lives as a naval aviator; now he saves the day for pilots in court

Published in 2011 Washington Rising Stars Magazine — July 2011

As a Navy pilot, Geoff Grindeland tamed a beast as big as a school bus.

“Literally as big as a school bus,” Grindeland stresses, “if you look at the dimensions on paper. People walk up to it and are blown away by how large it actually is.”

The Navy craft in question was an MH-53, and Grindeland’s job behind its controls, one of many posts he held while serving, was to look for mines in oceans and detonate them before they could destroy U.S. ships.

Now a litigator at Seattle’s Mills Meyers Swartling, Grindeland spends much of his time defending pilots involved in crashes.

“I had a really enjoyable time in the Navy,” Grindeland says. “I was there for 11 years, and it was an easy peacetime. I got in after Desert Storm and made the decision to leave right before the attacks on 9/11.

“I loved the people I worked with—some of the best you could ever ask to serve with. But I came to a point where I had to make a decision to either continue with flying or do something else.”

He chose the something else. “I was very excited at the prospect of using a part of my brain that I didn’t use every day flying,” he says. “Not to say that flying doesn’t take a lot of brain. But it’s a different part of your brain, more scientific and methodological; whereas law is more abstract and academic.”

Initially worried about making the transition—“It felt like I was completely starting over,” he says—Grindeland was surprised at how nicely piloting and the law dovetailed. There’s the obvious parallel: his practice area. “I represent airplane manufacturers, companies that operate helicopters, [and] airlines and pilots, and because I have the same license that pilots have, I know pilot procedures; I know how airplanes and helicopters work. That translated well.”

Then there are the not-so-obvious parallels, like the ones Grindeland sees between litigation and flying search-and-rescue missions on Whidbey Island, where he once was stationed. “We were primarily there to rescue Navy pilots who had to eject [from their aircraft], but that didn’t happen too often, so mostly we provided service to law enforcement agencies and civilian search-and-rescue missions around Western Washington. I did lots of searching for and rescuing injured or lost hikers, mountain climbers who’d fallen and gotten injured or killed. People in crisis,” he says. “It’s the same thing in litigation. People in a crisis call you for help, depending on your special skills and training to help them through. There are things out of your control—like weather in a search-and-rescue mission, or maybe the written terms of a contract in dispute in litigation—and in both situations, the better you prepare, the better chance of a good outcome.”

Grindeland’s mixed practice of general litigation and aviation work allows him to indulge two sides of his personality. “I particularly enjoy the aviation crash cases, the technological aspects of it, the pilot procedures, the aerodynamics, the engineering,” he says. “It really satisfies the science-based aspects I’m interested in.”

Then there’s general litigation. “There’s a real human element in these civil cases, so it’s a great balance for the technical stuff,” he says. Grindeland typically handles jury inquests, representing officers and police agencies. “Any time a civilian is killed where there is law enforcement involvement, [King County] holds a jury inquest. This is not a fault-finding inquiry; that comes later if a civil suit is brought. This is a fact-finding inquiry in which a jury is tasked with determining all the facts surrounding an officer-involved shooting or death. This is a very important event in an officer’s life, and they’re usually emotionally distraught. Even when an officer did what they had to do when faced with the circumstances they saw that day, taking a life is hard.” Grindeland’s role is even more personal because of an incident that happened a week before he started law school.

“I was driving my family out to Charlottesville, Virginia, to start school at UVA [University of Virginia] from Whidbey Island, the site of my final job in the Navy,” he says. “We made a trip of it, enjoying our time together. On the last day of our trip, we were in a horrible accident. An 18-wheeler crossed the center line and hit my little minivan. The accident was so serious that after it hit us, [the 18-wheeler] left the roadway, flipped over and burst into flames. The driver died. The door to our minivan was torn off, and a chunk of something hit the oldest of my two sons and broke his femur.”

Although fine now (“an excellent athlete,” Grindeland boasts), his son, then 4, went through multiple surgeries to repair his leg. “On my very first day of law school, I wasn’t there. I was with my son while he was having surgery,” Grindeland says. “It was then that I realized how much a family in crisis needs an attorney to protect their rights. I carry that with me always.”

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