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54 – Michael O’Neill – Delivering Justice: From UPS Defense Attorney to Plaintiff Trial Lawyer

In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with former defense attorney for UPS and current plaintiff attorney, Michael O’Neill. This show covers an array of topics, including the defense’s advantages in catastrophic injury cases, why O’Neill switched sides of the courtroom (and why it made him such a good plaintiff attorney), what companies can’t defend against, and why referring out cases can make you more money.

The episode kicks off with Cowen asking O’Neill why large companies use the same defense firm for cases around the country. O’Neill says the lawyer needs to know a very specific field, know the company well, and have a consistent defense. O’Neill would receive a call in the middle of the night or on a weekend and would need to travel immediately to the scene of a crash. UPS would refer to this as “boots on the ground.” He emphasizes that marshalling evidence while it’s fresh is pertinent to the success of any case. O’Neill shares a story of a time where he went to the scene and pointed out a detail the police missed which would have hurt their case on liability. He was also there while the police were writing their reports and describes how he could influence what was written. Cowen and O’Neill discuss the defense’s role in shaping the narrative of the case from the start, the role of psychology with the first responders, the defense’s advantage in this, and what plaintiff lawyers CAN (but most DON’T) do to combat this.

Cowen then asks what everyone’s thinking; why did O’Neill switch to the plaintiff’s side? O’Neill replies that the curiosity has always been there. He then describes a scenario, not uncommon to him, where he had a defense verdict on a case he believed “that’s an easy 7-figure case that should have been won and we zeroed them.”

The conversation shifts to what companies CAN’T defend. Both agree on exposing poor training programs as the key to winning “nuclear verdicts” in commercial vehicle and trucking cases. They discuss this and other factors which make the case about the 3 months before, as opposed to the 5 seconds before the crash. O’Neill then brings up a defense trucking podcast by FreightWaves which recently discussed the defense’s fear of “the second lawyer” and the impact of referral attorneys on the insurance industry. As a “second lawyer” himself, Cowen shares a recent example of an insurance company who learned once he became involved all prior negotiations at a much lower number were out the window.

One of the most important details for a successful catastrophic injury lawyer to accomplish is to make the case about the company, not the individual. Cowen shares a story of a case where the CMV driver was high on meth at the time of the accident. The case against the driver was already strong, but when asked by a colleague why he was working so hard on the case Cowen replied, “It doesn’t take much money to teach a meth head a lesson. It needs to be about the company and what it takes to teach the company a lesson.” O’Neill echoes this with another great example of a strong case that he made even stronger by putting in the work.

O’Neill and Cowen then praise trucking trial lawyer Joe Fried and how instrumental he has been on creating the current “abundance mentality” of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys (ATAA). The ATAA abundance mentality encompasses the idea that there are plenty of trucking cases to go around, and we all perform better when we share information and establish good law. “The tide raises good ships,” O’Neill eloquently responds. When comparing this to the defense bar, O’Neill says the difference is night and day. Information on the defense side is kept from one another because there are fewer clients and essentially everyone can be your competition. He goes as far as to say that the way the plaintiff’s bar shares information “terrifies the defense.”

They then move into a discussion on the transition process from defense to plaintiff lawyer. Cowen asks O’Neill what it has been like changing into a role where he works at a firm that now funds cases and isn’t paid by the hour. O’Neill discusses some transitional difficulties, but insists he has been made confident through his experiences as a defense attorney, stating, “You start giving big checks to mediocre lawyers and you start to wonder, why am I not on the other end of this conversation?” Cowen then describes his history of funding cases by sharing his expertise in finance management and smart firm growth.

The conversation concludes with a discussion on package car cases- What makes them different from trucking cases? Why can they be so complicated? O’Neill highlights the necessity for specialized knowledge in this area, stating, “There’s a million ways to skin a cat, but you have to know how to skin the cat.” Because shipping companies usually work with subcontractors as delivery drivers, it can be difficult to make the case about the company. O’Neill shares valuable insight into how he’s overcome this barrier.

This episode also covers efficient docket size, the order of your depositions, networking, direct to public marketing versus B2B marketing, and much more.

 

ABOUT THE GUEST

A northeastern Pennsylvania native, Attorney Michael O’Neill handles catastrophic injury litigation, including representing those who were in motor vehicle and truck accidents, medical malpractice, product liability, and premises liability. A former senior litigation associate at DLA Piper LLP, and a founder partner at a national litigation boutique law firm, O’Neill has served as first chair trial attorney in over 25 jury trials, or their equivalent, in ten different states. All of these complex litigation matters involved disputes of seven figures or more and resulted in successful verdicts or settlements.

With more than 20 years of complex litigation experience, O’Neill has appeared multiple times on NBC-10 television in Philadelphia, numerous radio broadcasts and national podcasts as a legal expert and to discuss cases he is handling on behalf of catastrophically injured people.

O’Neill is admitted to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of New Jersey, and the Supreme Court of New York, as well as the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Middle District of Pennsylvania, Western District of Pennsylvania, District of New Jersey, and the Northern District of Texas.

O’Neill also has a distinguished military service record as a veteran of the United States Army. He is an honors graduate of the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School and the U.S. Army Aviation and Warfighting Center, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and trained to fly helicopters for the Army and the Pennsylvania National Guard. He remained active in the National Guard until 2005 and is a member of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, one of the oldest recognized organizations in the United States military.

O’Neill earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Scranton and received his Juris Doctor from the Villanova University School of Law in 1998. While at Villanova, he focused on litigation-related curriculum and after graduation taught trial advocacy for seven years as an adjunct professor. A lifelong athlete, he played collegiate football and baseball and was inducted into the Wayne/Pike County Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. He also has held a civilian aviation license for more than 30 years.

Michael O’Neill joined the offices of Fellerman & Ciarimboli in Philadelphia on March 1st.. He can be reached by phone at (215)776-5070 or by email at mjo@fclawpc.com.

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