Lawdragon had the recent opportunity to interview Jerry Oshinsky about his long and impressive legal career. He rounds out his life with family, theater, sports and reading voraciously, while still practicing law.
Through a series of game-changing judicial decisions, Oshinsky was victorious in landmark cases for insurance payouts for dozens of companies dealing with asbestos and environmental claims. He also successfully argued to shift the burden of proof to insurance companies in a decision that rocked the insurance industry.
Oshinsky’s home office is overflowing with his professional awards, award certificates, pieces from his extensive glass art collection and a signed Lady Gaga photograph given for his help in handling a life insurance claim. His favorite among the many accolades he continues to receive year after year is the Lawdragon Hall of Fame award.
But for Oshinsky, the path to legal prominence was anything but predetermined. He was the first in his entire family to go on to college and later received a law degree from Columbia University. The family moved from Jersey City to Brooklyn when Oshinsky was in the seventh grade. He attended Tilden High School before Brooklyn College.
His father, Samuel, worked at various jobs, including as a prize fighter, a night watchman and a New York City taxi driver. Despite no musical training, Samuel could play any tune on the harmonica after hearing it once. He loved to dance and sing, and performed in nursing homes as part of the Mayor’s Sunshine Committee, which perhaps explains Oshinsky’s love of the performing arts. In addition to his legal career, Oshinsky has performed and directed dozens of theater productions and has written a few plays, as well. Among Oshinsky's favorite roles were Juror #6 in "Twelve Angry Men," the art critic Clem Greenberg in "Fifteen Rounds with Jackson Pollock," the news reporter Hornbeck in "Inherit the Wind" and his role as an aide to David Frost in "Frost/Nixon." He also plays the ukulele – which, he says with a wink, “after seven years is still a work in process.”
He met his future wife, Sandy, at Brooklyn College. They just celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. They have two grown children, David and Alison, and five grandsons. A highlight from his Brooklyn College days includes being the President of the largest student organization where he worked to arrange an Ella Fitzgerald concert, and had to chaperone Ella around the campus. This still remains a fond and vivid memory.
After law school, Oshinsky started his legal career as an associate at the firm, Chadbourne, Parke, Whiteside & Wolf. His first mentor was senior partner Charlie Pickett. When Oshinsky was only a third-year lawyer, Pickett had the confidence to send him alone to Los Angeles to investigate any possible antitrust issues that would have precluded an acquisition by North American Rockwell. It was Oshinsky’s first time on a plane.
Two years later, Oshinsky left that firm to join the newly formed firm of Anderson Allegart and Russell, where he worked with Gene Anderson and Larry Kill, both formerly of the Chadbourne firm. The firm’s name was ultimately changed to Anderson Kill Olick and Oshinsky. That’s where he began to build a name for himself. He was asked by Gene Anderson to represent Keene Corporation. The issue that divided the legal profession and threatened to bankrupt their clients was how to access their insurance for the unprecedented claims surrounding asbestos exposure. The issue boiled down to which insurance policies would cover these claims, those in effect when people were exposed to asbestos or those policies in effect when people knew they were sick. Finding all of the insurance companies jointly and severally liable and winning compensation for the many sick workers was Oshinsky's “path to fame.”
We won the case. It caused a tsunami in the industry. It really revolutionized the world of insurance claims.
There are two other stories that rival Keene in establishing his reputation as the leading coverage lawyer in the country: W.R. Grace and Monsanto. W.R. Grace makes the list because of its notoriety. Sued for allegedly polluting Woburn, Mass., Grace settled the case with money that came from insurers and the entire saga formed the basis for the popular movie “A Civil Action.”
Much more significant in establishing Jerry’s reputation was Monsanto. Monsanto, based in Missouri, had a billion dollars in exposure in environmental cases and appeared to be subject to the 8th Circuit’s en banc decision, holding that environmental clean up costs are not covered by insurance. Oshinsky decided to file a coverage action in Delaware, where Monsanto was incorporated, and to contest a filing against Monsanto in Connecticut.
Motions to dismiss were exchanged and the case in Delaware survived, but the insurers were not done. They said, “Missouri law will apply" and that "Monsanto is still not covered.” The Delaware trial judge, the Hon. Henry duPont Ridgely, agreed that Missouri law applied, but in a stroke of judicial activism, ruled that the 8th Circuit misconstrued Missouri law and that cleanup costs were covered as damages. That decision was affirmed by the Delaware Supreme Court. The issue came before the Missouri Supreme Court, which affirmed Ridgely’s decision in Farmland Dairies. The decision closed the loop on coverage for cleanup costs and created precedents that were followed throughout the country.
Among the many cases that Oshinsky worked on through the years, additional ones that he regards as precedent-setting cases today are: British Petroleum ( over the clean up of Prince William Sound caused by the Exxon Valdez spill); ICI (which made the fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City Bombing); North American Phillips, Hercules, Metropolitan Life (involving liability for asbestos claims); Penn State (over sexual abuse claims against Jerry Sandusky); Duke University (involving high-profile allegations against lacrosse players at a college party); and many others involving pharmaceutical products, health care providers and unions.
The Lawdragon Hall of Famer turned 80 last year. (“Allegedly,” Oshinsky quips.) But he shows no signs of slowing down. A few months ago, he opened JerryOLaw, where he primarily acts as an expert consulting and testifying witness and arbitrator in insurance matters, as well as occasional litigator, in selective insurance claims cases. In his current firm, he believes that he has greater flexibility to include policyholders and insurance companies as his clients. He’s also keeping his toe in the artistic waters by co-chairing a group that plans to build a museum for the history of live theatre in Los Angeles, similar to the one that just opened in New York City.
Lawdragon: How did your practice come to focus on representing policyholders against insurance companies? Where did it start?
Jerry Oshinsky: The list of insurance cases I’ve worked on were a large cross-section of American businesses and educational institutions. It really started with the Keene case, which was decided in 1981. How that case came about is interesting. Gene called me one day in 1975 and said, “Jerry, the president of the Keene Corporation, Glenn Bailey, says they’re having an asbestos issue." He asked me to meet Glenn. But instead of meeting in his office, Gene said to meet Glenn downstairs for his daily fast walk around Manhattan. He said I would know it was him because Glenn was the tallest, skinniest guy on the street and he was 6’6 and about 160 pounds. I speed-walked with Glenn from Sixth Avenue to the East River, and after an hour, we had the case. The moral of the story is, “To pick up new business, go to the client."
We won the case. It caused a tsunami in the insurance industry. In Keene, the appellate court held that the burden of proof is on the insurance company to prove that the injury did not happen during their particular policy periods. They were so agonized by this decision that they sought Supreme Court review on the grounds that their due process had been violated. That was turned down and the Appellate Court decision became the final decision. That really revolutionized the world of insurance claims.
I often prefer to work with women, honestly. As Gene used to say, often the best man for the job is a woman.
LD: What other early cases were particularly memorable for you?
JO: I have to break that down into two segments: before and after Keene. Before Keene, I was a general litigator. When I was a second- or third-year associate, the mid-level Wall Street lawyers got raises from $9,000 to $15,000. However, the senior associates did not get commensurate raises so they left. The door opened and I was handed 38 cases which allowed me to get much more experience at a much younger age.
The list of memorable cases before Keene and insurance include North American Rockwell, the major client of senior partner, Mr. Pickett. The Navy hired North American Rockwell to develop a new form of missile systems and when North American failed, the Navy claimed that they could make it work. However, the Navy falsified the test reports and I was able to expose the Navy fraud.
I worked on several matters for North American Rockwell, NAA. They were involved in NASA’s Space Program. In 1971, NAA and Pratt & Whitney were both bidding for the contract to build the main engines of the Space Shuttle. NAA got it, and Pratt and Whitney protested, claiming that the government was favoring NAA and that NAA had faulty engine technology. I worked with Charlie Pickett to defeat all of those claims.
In some of my cases, the clients felt like a guest list at award ceremonies. Clients were household names. I handled a contract dispute case for Don McLean, who wrote the famous song “American Pie,” which still is the longest and most recognized performed song all over the world. Don was getting severely underpaid for his royalties. I discovered a secret set of books that contained the true royalty numbers. We settled the case on a favorable basis for Don.
I handled a case for Janie Blaylock, the star golfer, who was being unfairly accused of cheating by the LPGA’s governing board, which was made up of players. Our antitrust case led to reforms in the way the sports association governed itself, bringing in an independent body for disputes. My partner, Larry Kill, tried one aspect of the case and Janie was quickly back on the course where she won first prize.
Ellen Peck, a founder of NOW, the National Organization of Women, and writer of the book "The Baby Trap," was a client and through her I met and sometimes worked with her collection of admirers including Isaac Asimov, Cleveland Amory, Isabel Hupert and others lost in my memory. I helped Ellen negotiate deals and read her corporate documents.
I represented Broadway star and ASPCA board member Gretchen Wyler, in litigation with the ASPCA where employees were selling valuable animals and destroying the others, without sufficient notice to their owners. Our litigation resulted in the appointment of David Dinkins, who ultimately became NYC mayor, as the new executive director. He was influential in reforming the organization.
I litigated a major securities fraud case against Roy Cohn for financial misdeeds involving stock sales in his private yacht, which ultimately led to him being disbarred in New York and D.C.
LD: Roy Cohn, that awful lawyer portrayed in “Angels in America”?
JO: That’s the one. Awful doesn’t begin to describe him. He was completely immoral.
In 1975, I got a phone call one day from James Madison, the great great grandson of the late President. I also met with John Q. Adams who worked for an insurance company.
For my first 10 years, I did not see an insurance policy and would not have known what it was. Insurance law was treated like a step-child and you can only imagine how many showed up for Insurance classes at Columbia Law School on a Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m.
It makes a difference when someone recognizes your abilities and encourages you to grow.
“Après Keene, le deluge.” I was immediately retained in many ongoing environmental and asbestos disputes, such as the Owen Corporation, Pfizer, Hercules, IHOP and Monsanto.
LD: You’ve long been an advocate for women in the legal profession. Was there a moment when that clicked in as important to you?
JO: Always. I’ve always worked with male and female attorneys. I often prefer to work with women. As Gene frequently used to say, “The best man for the job is a woman.” In that era, women really had a rough go, and often had to work twice as hard as men to obtain the recognition they deserved. Opposing women lawyers in insurance cases that I have encountered have been some of the strongest opponents in my memory. Two that stand out are Laura Foggan and the honorable Mary Kay Vyskocil, now a judge in the Southern District of New York. Of the countless women attorneys who have worked with me on policy holder’s cases, the five who have worked most closely with me are Robin Cohen, Linda Kornfeld, Lorelei Masters, Mary Craig Calkins and Jan Larson.
I was fortunate to work at Chadbourne in the ‘60s with Eunice Whitney who went on to become the chief judge of the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals.
I knew and worked with extraordinary female lawyers my whole career. It was awfully hard for them back then, and I’ve always supported them. I included them in my seminars and had them take depositions early in their careers to give them experience. Many of the women I worked with and mentored in the law have gone on to become leaders in their firms and careers.
LD: You grew up in Jersey City and Brooklyn in the 1950s and early 1960s in a working-class Jewish family. What was your path to the law?
JO: It’s a very good question. I read a biography of Clarence Darrow when I was 12 years old and it made a big impression on me. I thought that I would become a lawyer.
I believe there’s no such thing as pre-destination; you make your own fate. That said, I had many helpers along the way. My teacher in fourth grade, Mrs. Weigley, took me to museums, gave me books to read and had me do lectures in the auditorium in front of the whole school. It makes a difference when someone recognizes your abilities and encourages you to grow. Learning always came easy to me. Except calculus, not my strength!
When I got to Columbia Law school, I was pretty lost at first. I still remember being invited to the Dean’s reception. Not knowing any better, we bypassed the receiving line until someone pointed out that the Dean was shaking hands! I didn’t even know what a receiving line was. I slowly figured things out over the semester. One of my professors was Louis Henkin, the renowned international legal rights scholar. He was the first real mentor I had at law school. He helped me to be a more effective legal writer; he was my first critic and I was his research assistant for two years. Years later, he influenced my son to go to Columbia Law school. There was also Professor William Cary, who was the SEC Chairman under JFK. It grew from there. It just clicked. I loved law school. It was hard, but it was a grand time.
LD: Tell us about your current firm, JerryOLaw. What sort of work are you handling?
JO: I’m spending more time as an expert consultant and testifying witness in insurance cases. I'm working on a variety of other matters, with an emphasis on expert witness consulting.
I have even testified for insurance companies, who have settled claims with policyholders and helped them receive reinsurance coverage for the settlement. I believe that I have considerable credibility in offering opinions on whether an insurance settlement is fair and reasonable. If I find that a deal is not equitable, I'm not going to step in and support something that I do not believe in.
In the end, important jobs do not make people important. Importance comes from your soul, your life’s force.
I'm also working on the creation of a major museum for the theater in Los Angeles with my friend Jon Rivera, who is the artistic director for the Playwrights’ Arena. We’re going to have to interview just about every living person who worked on the stage in Los Angeles for the last 50 years. It's going to be a major project. Working title: The Museum of Los Angeles Theater.
LD: We know you’ve done quite a bit of acting in your day, too. Did you ever act with Jon?
JO: Yes, I’ve been in two of his plays that he directed in L.A. What’s great about that is that he treats all of the actors with the same degree of benevolent dictatorship. He is one of the best directors I’ve ever seen.
LD: How do you give back to your community?
JO: There have been many times in my long career where I have stepped in to help people in the community who need my legal advice and help, with no fee. We sponsored a young Latina woman with tremendous potential. With our help and support she attended a local private high school and then went to a California college and graduated. She is the first in her family to complete high school and graduate from college.
LD: Looking back in your life and career, what are you most proud of?
JO: My family. I’ve been married for 57 years. I married the love of my life. Sandy is brilliant. She's beautiful, charming, incisive, tough, much smarter than I am. She's been my de facto business manager since the first day I started law school.
I adore my two children David and Ali and I feel so lucky to have five grandsons: Sam, Jack, Charlie, Joey and Mo.
In the end, important jobs do not make people important. Importance comes from your soul, your life’s force, and your desire to be a warm and loving member of your community. I’ve tried to do that, the best I could.