When it comes to airplane crashes and the lawyers who try to win money for victims’ families — and themselves — it can be a shark fest, because aviation cases are highly lucrative and rarely lost.
Among those legal sharks is a self-described “piranha from the Amazon,” Chicago’s Monica Kelly.
When a commercial airliner goes down, like the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight in March or the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco last year, Kelly is at the ready to sue airlines and aircraft-makers.
Kelly, born in the mountains of Peru near the Amazon River, is slight in stature — about 5 feet, 3 inches tall. But she casts a relatively large shadow in the world of aviation.
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Kelly defends herself against accusations she hears all the time — that she’s the equivalent of an ambulance-chaser for the skies. Kelly makes no apologies for her legal focus — obtaining money for plane-crash victims and their families.
“If they want to be compensated, why shouldn’t you help them get compensated?” she said in a thick Spanish accent. “Of course, I am not a nun. I charge for my services. There’s nothing wrong with making money and helping people at the same time.”
In part, she views herself as fighting for the defenseless — people who might otherwise be steamrollered by insurers offering meager settlements, for example.
Critics, though, have accused Kelly of preying on the grieving and injured, although she says victims or their families always contact her first, usually via email.
As for criticisms from other attorneys, Kelly essentially dismisses them as jealousy — lawyers upset that she attracts clients they want.
“The competition in the aviation-law area is very horrible,” she said.
Why is competition so fierce? Simple, Kelly said: “You never lose an aviation case.
In many personal-injury cases, defendants can argue that the victim did something wrong that contributed to the injury or death, Kelly said. Not with airline crashes; passengers are almost always innocent victims. In addition, victims can sue the airline, the aircraft maker, component parts-makers, maintenance companies — all of which have deep pockets and all greatly insured, she said.
“That’s another reason why these cases are very profitable … there’s plenty of money,” she said. “You never get zero. There is no such thing as, ‘Oh, we lost the case.’ ”
When it comes to representing plane-crash victims, being there first matters.
“It’s always who has the first client, because the first client brings you more clients,” Kelly said. “So when (other law firms) don’t get it, they get upset, which is OK. I don’t care. They can say whatever.”
She doesn’t sound intimidated.
“They are like sharks. But I always say, they might be sharks, but I am a piranha from the Amazon who eats sharks for breakfast,” she said, laughing.
Kelly, a partner at the Ribbeck Law firm started by her brother Manuel von Ribbeck, figures that she has filed about 40 airline-crash lawsuits representing people from 70 countries. She claims that no other firm in the world is currently involved with more plane-crash cases than hers.
Kelly tries to keep cases in the U.S., which usually leads to larger settlements and awards. That means keying in on plane crashes involving Boeing. And because Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, she can file suits in her hometown.
Kelly didn’t set out to be an aviation-disaster lawyer. The daughter of a lumber-mill owner grew up in Peru until terrorism there in the 1980s got so bad that she and her siblings moved to Chicago, she said.
Kelly graduated from Loyola University Chicago College of Law and was searching for a career that would satisfy her desire to travel. She thought she would be a diplomat, she said.
Change of plans
But after joining her brother’s law firm in 2005, she was visiting in Peru with her son when a plane crashed. Since she was already there, her brother, experienced in aviation-crash cases, encouraged her to check it out for possible litigation. Shortly after, she did the same with a crash in Indonesia, she said.
And a career was born.
She later attended the University of Oxford, took the bar in England and became a solicitor of England and Wales. She can practice law in most of the European Union. The primary purpose of being recognized as a lawyer there is to deal with English-based insurance and reinsurance companies, such as Lloyd’s of London, she said.
Kelly knows that some people view her legal concentration as macabre, and she concedes that talking to crash victims’ families is emotionally difficult.
“Meeting people in these circumstances is hard, but you also give them hope and help them find out what happened,” she said.
Kelly knows what she does is controversial. In case she forgets, she regularly gets reams of hate email — her direct email address is listed on the law-firm website. She gets mail from Boeing shareholders upset that her case might cause the company’s stock price to dip.
“I get emails saying, ‘I wish you were in the plane, dead.’ I’ve gotten used to it,” she said.
The most common objection? “Money for death,” she said. “You are profiting from the death of a person.
“That, of course, doesn’t sound good. But that’s what the law allows, and you’re compensating a loss that someone has suffered. And you’re trying to have some type of punishment against those who did it.
“It’s not that I am the evil person. I am just exercising the rights of families who want to (sue).”
Kelly said she is comfortable with the ethics of what she does.
“Every time I see myself in the mirror, I see a decent person. We have never ripped off a client or stolen from a client,” she said.
With all the settlements through the years, Kelly no longer needs to work for a living, she said. (She declined to give her age, but public records suggest she is 47.)
But she enjoys what she does.
“I have a great life. I don’t think I will ever retire.”