Attorney Lee S. Kreindler gets up from the barber's chair fresh from a trim. Handing the shoeshine boy a $5 tip, the 74-year-old lawyer glances in the mirror: All ready for the day's meetings with several families of the 229 passengers killed when Swissair Flight 111 went down off the coast of Nova Scotia on September 2. "I'm frazzled," he says, crossing the street to his Park Avenue office. "I've been working my ass off lately."
Working, that is, on what he calls "the perfect liability case." Because Swissair had earlier signed a multi-carrier agreement to waive the caps on accident liability, Kreindler -- the country's most famous plane-crash litigator -- envisions a huge settlement. And since Boeing and its suppliers are not party to that agreement, Kreindler may decide to sue them, too. "There is more than one way to skin a cat," he says, "but I will play that card."
Kreindler got his start in 1952 when he won the first major verdict -- $165,000 -- against an airline by independently proving the cause of the crash. Later, he wrote what is still considered the definitive text on aviation litigation. In 1988, he served as lead counsel in the largest airline case to date: the Pan Am 103 bombing. The nearly eight-year effort, which included suing the Libyan government and a collective outlay of more than $3 million, brought in a combined $500 million in damages for the plaintiffs, nearly half of whom were Kreindler's clients.
Then TWA Flight 800 blew up off Long Island in 1996; as co-lead counsel in the suits brought by the victims' families, Kreindler was the first to go public with the theory that a faulty fuel pump detonated the explosion. Having recently spent two days going over the wreckage with his own team of investigators, he insists, "We're on our way to solving this crash. We've come up with things that have so far eluded the NTSB National Transportation Safety Board, and I believe we are going to bring to light facts that will lead to substantial damages." Asked to elaborate, Kreindler says only, "I've been pretty hot on the scavenge pump."
In the legal world, Kreindler has an unimpeachable reputation for professionalism and thoroughness, though he's had a problem or two with his own team. Mitch Baumeister, who carried Kreindler's bags when he worked for him as a law student in 1970, left Kreindler & Kreindler to start a rival practice in 1984. When Kreindler first publicized his Flight 800 theory, Baumeister blasted him for being "irresponsible" and "holding out the false expectation" of a solution.
Today, Kreindler and Baumeister speak respectfully of each other, but their styles are very different. While Kreindler is methodically meeting with the Swissair victims' families, Baumeister quickly slapped the airline with a $50 million suit on behalf of ex-boxer Jake LaMotta, whose son was killed.
It's just one indication of the way competition in the field has intensified as damage awards have risen. The attorney's percentage in passenger-jet disasters is usually less than the 30 percent that personal-injury lawyers generally get, but the settlements themselves are vast. Kreindler's firm's take in the Pan Am settlement was around $40 million, plus expenses.
The Swissair case could be much more lucrative. "There were around the same number of passengers as on Pan Am Flight 103, but Swissair had a lot of breadwinners," Kreindler says, sitting in his firm's conference room, next to a poster-size blowup of the reconstructed 747 that was Flight 800. "Let's just say . . . recovery will be substantial." The first $1 billion air crash? "Could be," he says hopefully.