Photo by Michelle Nolan.
We could just as easily be reading about Todd Smith as one of the nation’s leading criminal defense lawyers, which is how the Chicago-based Power Rogers & Smith founding partner got his start. But there are countless plaintiffs across personal injury, wrongful death, aviation, product liability and medical malpractice cases who are grateful the award-studded attorney made the switch to the civil side back in 1980.
Smith, a proud native of Evanston, Ill., received his law degree from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, which awarded him its “Medal of Excellence” – the school’s highest honor – in 2005. After years being mentored by the legendary Philip Corboy, he moved to Power Rogers, where he has achieved many record-setting verdicts. Among those most meaningful to him are the families he's successfully represented after the wrongful death of a child. Smith also recently secured an $8.1M settlement for the family of a 52-year-old man killed in a helicopter crash.
Lawdragon: Please talk a bit about how you went from the criminal side to a civil practice representing plaintiffs.
Todd Smith: I was a trial lawyer for the Cook County Public Defender’s office handling felony jury trials. I also handled felony cases tried to the judge, as well as hundreds of preliminary hearings in felony cases. I was only four years in practice when I was asked to join what was then known as the Cook County Public Defender’s Murder Task Force. It was the elite group in the office. My supervisor, who remains a very good friend, was not willing to let me leave the position I was in because he wanted to have me to teach the “younger” lawyers. I became frustrated and began looking for outside trial work. In other words, outside of the office in private practice.
There really weren’t any positions with criminal defense practitioners as they are often either solo or just a couple of lawyers working together. I absolutely wanted to do trial work and I got very fortunate when I heard that Philip Corboy, a legendary Chicago plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, was looking for an associate to add to his firm. That was 1980. I was immediately handed a large number of cases and was sent out to trial within my first two weeks of being in civil trial practice.
The part that I think was most appealing to me was that in both types of practice - on the criminal side representing individuals and again on the plaintiff’s side in civil cases representing individuals - people really needed your help. On the criminal side, folks that couldn’t afford a lawyer were provided a lawyer. On the civil side, people who were deeply in trouble with having suffered perhaps even lifetime devastating injuries are able to get a lawyer, and not have to go out of pocket, because it’s, of course, contingent on your success.
LD: Last year, you won the Illinois Bar’s Distinguished Award for Excellence, which followed other high-profile awards, such as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Justice (AAJ), and the highest award from your law school. What has it meant to you to receive such honors? Can you share a few things that you feel have been instrumental in arriving at such a place in your career?
TS: The recognitions from the Illinois Bar, as well as from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, now AAJ, and the award from my law school are, of course, wonderful recognitions. I never could have imagined I would have received this type of acknowledgement. The truth of the matter is that without those who have given me opportunities all along the way, I would never have been considered for these kinds of recognitions. I really do owe it to others.
In terms of a few things that have been instrumental in arriving at a certain place in my career, I’d have to first say that, one, is being tossed into the fire immediately as an assistant public defender where you were standing in a courtroom right away representing people who had only you to help them. Talk about being thrown right into battle. The same was true once I reached the civil side. I was told by Phil Corboy “lawyers who want to try cases, try cases.” In other words, get out there and do it.
LD: You’re an Illinois native and seem to have spent most of your time there, except for your undergraduate studies. Did you ever think about going elsewhere and, if not, what has kept you in Illinois?
TS: That’s an interesting question. I’m sure I’m not unique. If you enjoyed where you grew up, why not stay? What’s not to like about Evanston, Illinois? The first suburb at the edge of one of the greatest cities in the world. It has the nationally, even internationally respected, Northwestern University, there. I basically grew up on that campus where my father taught for 40 years. I guess the bottom line is I have deep ties and experiences with this community, and virtually all of them are very positive.
LD: Are there certain types of matters that are keeping you busy these days?
TS: I like the fact that my practice has been broad, covering a number of areas – medical malpractice; aviation cases; accounting and financial negligence/malpractice; and in more recent years mass tort and class action cases. Keeping me busy today is my appointment as co-lead counsel for economic loss in the National Class Action/Takata Air Bag Defect litigation centered in the Southern District of Florida. The case involves the Takata Corporation, as well as seven automobile manufacturers, including some of the very largest in the world: Honda, Toyota, Ford, etc.
LD: Can you go into detail on another recent case you’ve worked on?
TS: One is a wrongful death and product liability case involving a helicopter crash. A pilot of an Agusta (Italian manufacturer) helicopter working for the Air Angels organization, a medical helicopter service in the western suburbs, crashed and died just south of the DuPage County Airport. This was obviously a tragic event, but a fortunate aspect is that he was the only person on board. Not only was it a foreign manufacturer of the helicopter, but also the component part that we have long contended failed was made by a French manufacturer.
It was a contest from the very beginning and it started with personal jurisdiction, with a motion brought by the French component manufacturer. The jurisdiction issue went twice to our intermediate Appellate Court and twice to our Illinois Supreme Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court where certiorari was denied. We won that jurisdiction issue in the Illinois Supreme Court. It was the first jurisdiction decision by the Court in about 25 years. There were no eyewitnesses to the occurrence, so it’s an entirely reconstructed case with a half-a-dozen experts employed just on the liability side of our case, including a helicopter piloting expert, two reconstruction experts, a ball bearing manufacturing and design expert, and a metallurgist.
LD: Interesting. What else stands out about the case?
TS: Certainly as to the client the loss by his wife and children in the death of the pilot is an enormous impact. One of the things that they have long strived to do is to show that this highly qualified pilot - with over 12,000 hours as a helicopter pilot - did nothing wrong. That it was a failure of the product itself and not the failure of the pilot. That, as you might guess, is the defense in the case.
I will certainly never forget the case, number one, because of the length of time involved on the jurisdiction issue alone; and two, the success on appeal twice to the Appellate Court and then to the Illinois Supreme Court. And we now finally reached the point where all of the experts are in place and we near the finish line – the trial. Shortly after the commencement of trial, the long journey of this case ended in a resolution of $8.1 million.
LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?
TS: Well, obviously I’m not doing any criminal work anymore and I did many, many jury trials in criminal felony cases, from theft on up to murder, and virtually everything in between from kidnapping and armed robbery to burglary, etc. My early civil practice was primarily automobile cases, and then I started practicing more in the product liability and medical malpractice area. The cases generally in the last many years have been the more complex type in Medical Negligence, Aviation and now Consumer Class Action and Mass Action.
LD: Did you have a mentor who was particularly important for the course of your career?
TS: Yes – Phil Corboy on the civil side of my practice was clearly the most important mentor in my career. He was the top personal injury trial lawyer in Chicago of his generation by far. He opened the door for me – in other words gave me the opportunity; but he gave me more than that by showing me how to do it, and to do it the right way.
LD: You’ve had a huge amount of success. Is there a case in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is particularly memorable?
TS: I have been very fortunate to have some cases that are particularly memorable for me. There probably isn’t a single one alone. Having said that, I have tried a lot of wrongful death cases, and particularly wrongful death cases involving children. I suppose one aspect of that that I recall is in 1990 I tried the wrongful death of a 13-year-old girl and obtained a then-record $6-million verdict against Chicago Transit Authority, the bus and train company of the City of Chicago. It was hard fought on both liability and, of course, damages, but the case did set a record high for compensation in the wrongful death of a child, and it was one of the earlier cases that involved the loss of society and companionship elements alone without any economic loss.
That and the fact that 10 years later I obtained an $8 million verdict for the wrongful death of an 11-year-old which set the next record high for compensation again along the same lines and elements of damage. It’s really not so much about the amounts of money itself as it is that you are able to persuade a jury to think about the importance of that child in terms of non-economic aspects of life, and the loss in both cases to those families.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
TS: I’m a bit of a sports’ fanatic. Go Cubs!! I have tickets to virtually every professional sporting team in the city. I’d also love to become a better golfer, but it takes way too much time.
LD: I know you are involved in many public interest activities. Can you talk a little about those?
TS: Yes, I’m proud to serve on the National Center for State Court’s Board of Directors, and to co-chair their Lawyers Committee. The center is the leading organization focused on trying to help improve the justice systems in all of our 50 states, and also providing services internationally to countries trying to develop a democracy, and a proper justice system. It’s extraordinarily interesting work, and keeps you on the cutting edge of what’s going on in our state court systems around the country. I also serve as a Board Member for the Center for Constitutional Litigation, as well as Public Justice, a public interest law firm which has as one of its primary missions keeping the courts open to regular citizens across the country and fighting against those efforts to diminish civil justice rights that have been going on now for decades.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now professionally?
TS: I’d be a 6’9” power forward. The problem is I’m 5’11”. I always loved flying and for a while during the 1980’s I was a pilot flying a Cessna 172, but wasn’t able to devote enough time to it to stay active, and most importantly – safe. I still love the idea of it, and may, hopefully someday, go back to it.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the law or justice system?
TS: It’s pretty hard to beat “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I suspect that would be the answer of many lawyers. I have an original theatre poster from the movie framed at home. “12 Angry Men” remains as relevant today as it was when it came out almost 60 years ago. Another movie certainly far less well known is “Snow Falling on Cedars,” and primarily what I really loved about the movie was Max von Sydow’s closing argument. The movie focused on the discrimination against Japanese Americans during and after World War II, and the murder trial of a young Japanese American in 1950. Lastly, I would have to say “A Few Good Men” isn’t too bad either.