Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Supper club fire catapulted Chesley

Local attorney led way on mass injury cases

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Like most other personal injury lawyers, Stan Chesley set out to build his career one fender-bender at a time.

        He was a former shoe salesman who made his living on the kind of routine cases that clog the courthouse every day. Auto collision. Medical malpractice. Anything that came his way.

        “His reputation was as an average personal injury lawyer,” recalls Bruce Allman, an attorney who has known him for years. “But that didn't last long.”

        Everything changed for Mr. Chesley — and for the rest of the legal profession — when he became the lead attorney for families who lost relatives in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977.

        Mr. Chesley's approach to the case has been both lionized and criticized for years, but there is little doubt among his peers that it changed the way major lawsuits are litigated in America.

        It also launched a career that would bring Mr. Chesley fame, riches and political power.

        Even so, Mr. Chesley says his basic mission hasn't changed since his early days on all those personal injury cases.

        “I'm a people's lawyer,” he says. “I'm going to take care of the little guy.”

        Although his cases now involve teams of lawyers, hundreds of plaintiffs and millions of dollars, Mr. Chesley says his goal is the same. It's his approach, he says, that revolutionized his profession.

        He first tried his formula for success just days after the Beverly Hills fire killed 165 people and injured 81.

        Mr. Chesley got involved after a man who was injured in the blaze came to him for help.

        Instead of getting in line with hundreds of other personal injury lawyers hoping for a small piece of a settlement, Mr. Chesley filed the first lawsuit in the case and promptly went about trying to consolidate the case with the other plaintiffs.

        His theory was to share the costs and the risks with the other plaintiffs in the hope that together they could win a much bigger settlement.

        His lawsuit named more than 1,000 defendants, including almost every insurance company in Kentucky, and argued that everything from faulty wiring to poor construction led to the disaster.

        The legal strategy netted about $49 million for the victims and their families, including millions in legal fees for Mr. Chesley and the other attorneys.

        “He didn't invent the concept, but he really pushed it,” said Mr. Allman, who opposed Mr. Chesley in the case. “He knows how to use the system as well as anybody. He's aggressive, and he's organized.”

        The case created a new way of doing business in mass tort, or mass injury, cases.

        Mr. Chesley says the Beverly Hills case provided the roadmap for other major cases, including most of his own.

        He has since worked on the national tobacco settlement, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, several airplane crashes, breast implant litigation and the Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India.

        The work has earned Mr. Chesley nicknames such as “The Prince of Torts” and one he dislikes, “The Master of Disaster.”

        His list of cases goes on, but Mr. Chesley says each is an outgrowth of his early experiences as a personal injury lawyer.

        It's the same principle, he says, just on a much larger scale.

        “We introduced the concept of mass tort cases so we could do them more efficiently,” he says. “I guess we pioneered, and I'm very proud of it.”


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