Aviation Lawyers Behaving Badly

Monica Kelly’s lawyer writes to say that a entry contained false and defamatory matter about his client.  He encloses a 2016 report of the Review Board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission recommending that, contrary to the Hearing Board’s conclusion that Kelly filed a frivolous pleading and recommending that she be suspended for 60 days, Kelly’s pleading in fact did not violate ethical rules and that she should not be suspended as a result.  Glad to provide her lawyer’s full input on the matter below.

 Aviation journalist Christine Negroni reports in Forbes that Monica Ribbeck Kelly, the lawyer who instituted “frivolous” legal proceedings after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, has herself disappeared.  Not only was the Illinois Ethics Committee after Kelly, but she was being sued by victims of an airline disaster in China for promising to file suit on behalf of victims but failing to do so before the statute of limitations expired, leaving the victim’s without any legal recourse.  It appears that Kelly has shuttered her law office and gone back to her native Peru. 

According to Negroni, maybe this is the last we see of Ribbeck: 

There are few successful days in court associated with Monica Ribbeck [Kelly]’s high-profile representation of air disaster victims.  So while her departure from the US may deprive dissatisfied clients . . . of any legal recourse, it could be the last we see of her shenanigans with the American legal system.


His website tells of an illustrious legal career spanning decades.  Pictured next to an antique race car, Terry O’Reilly boasts that he is “one of the most distinguished and successful trial lawyers” in the entire United States. O’Reilly lists many awards he claims to have received and explains that “I have the largest number of seven and eight figure verdicts in Northern California.”  He speaks of one aviation case he settled for more than $160 million.  Scattered through the website are other photos showing him surrounded by the trappings of his success.

A prospective client couldn’t help but be impressed.  Terry O'Reilly's Bentley

But it now looks as though O’Reilly’s show is mostly smoke and mirrors.  Yesterday the Boalt Law School graduate filed personal bankruptcy, with unpaid debts approaching $10 million. 

O’Reilly brings with him into bankruptcy the O’Reilly Law firm itself.  O’Reilly is legally permitted to continue practicing law even though he is bankrupt.  But all that is left of his firm is a small desk in a San Mateo, California office building.  The office is staffed by a disbarred lawyer, Pamela Stevens.  Stevens, according to State bar records, bilked her injured clients out of millions of dollars of settlement money and is considered a danger to the public.  Not someone who an accident victim would want working on his or her case.  

Certain types of attorneys can serve clients perfectly well even if they are themselves insolvent.  But plaintiffs lawyers working on contingency need to finance their clients’ cases.  They must advance on their clients’ behalf hundreds of thousand of dollars for experts and court costs.  With no money, it’s unclear how O’Reilly will be able to adequately represent the clients he seeks to attract.  

How was O’Reilly able to appear to be so successful? Last week a California court of appeal ruled that over the years O’Reilly was able to buy flashy stuff by improperly siphoning money from his previous law firm.  As a result, he ended up driving that law firm, O’Reilly & Collins, into bankruptcy in 2012:

O’Reilly, “in a concerted effort to wring from the firm every last dollar . . wrote firm checks to others to: build and furnish for him and his wife a luxury ranch in Idaho; buy expensive vintage cars here and abroad in furtherance of his racing hobby; buy fine wine, entertainment systems, and clothes;  pay taxes and insurance on his home in San Francisco; fly around on private jets, take ski vacations and travel to rugby matches; pay for vacations and shopping sprees for his current spouse; and fund his personal trust and retirement accounts. . . “

In short, O’Reilly was buying things with other people’s money.  And he apparently had no way of paying those people back.  Yesterday, it all caught up with him.  

Having worked with O’Reilly years ago, it’s sad to see.

The Illinois Attorney Ethics Committee has filed a complaint against Monica Ribbeck Kelly, the Chicago lawyer who started legal proceedings on behalf of a passenger’s family shortly after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing.  One of the problems for Kelly is that the missing passenger’s parents denied that they ever authorized Kelly to represent them.  

According to an ABC news story, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee also claimed in its complaint that Kelly has engaged in… conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice or bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute…”

According to the complaint, Kelly’s allegations were frivolous:

[Kelly alleged] that Siregar had been a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that the aircraft had crashed, that Siregar had been killed. .[Kelly’s] allegations… had no basis in fact and were frivolous, because [Kelly] knew at the time she filed the petition that no evidence had been discovered regarding the location or disposition of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.”

The ethics commission also criticizes Kelly for suggesting that a mechanical malfunction had contributed to the tragedy when committee said there was “no evidence” suggesting such a malfunction.

Full story and video at ABC News.

Shortly after the crash of Malaysia Flight MH 370, Monica Kelly of the Ribbeck Law Firm announced that her firm was filing litigation in Chicago seeking to preserve evidence and identify other possible defendants who might be involved in the missing Boeing’s manufacture and upkeep.  The filingMonica Kelly, Ribbeck Law generated quite a bit of fanfare and media coverage for the Ribbeck Law Firm and, at the time, the firm said that it expected to represent families of more than 50 percent of the passengers on board.

But the filing hasn’t turned out so well.  The judge has now tossed it out of court, ruling that it was improper and should never have been brought.  Further, she noted that she has tossed out previous petitions improperly filed by Ribbeck, so the firm should know better.  According to the Chicago Tribune, the judge was not amused:

Ribbeck Law had filed virtually identical petitions last year after separate fatal airplane crashes in San Francisco and Laos, and [Judge Flanagan] had dismissed both for the same reason.

“Despite these orders, the same law firm has proceeded, yet again, with the filing of the (Malaysia crash) petition, knowing full well there is no basis to do so,” Flanagan wrote.

The judge said she “will impose sanctions” if Ribbeck Law continues to make such filings.

According to another article in the Tribune, Ribbeck and Kelly have been in trouble before:

Last year, after the Asiana crash, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Illinois regulators investigate the firm over allegations its attorneys violated U.S. law barring uninvited solicitation of air crash victims in the first 45 days after a crash. . .

In 2008, Kelly’s brother and partner in the firm, Manuel von Ribbeck, was cited while working for another firm he allegedly posed as a Red Cross worker when he approached a man who’d lost his wife and daughter in a plane crash in the Bahamas. . .

Kelly was recommended for censure last month for allegedly continuing to try to represent a survivor of a 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in the Netherlands that killed nine passengers and crew. The survivor had sent a letter terminating the relationship, records show.  

It seems Ribbeck’s problems are not limited to aviation cases:

On March 20, von Ribbeck was found in civil contempt of court after he failed to set up an escrow account for child support as ordered by the judge overseeing a 2009 paternity suit filed against him in Cook County, court records show.

In the order, Judge Lionel Jean Baptiste said von Ribbeck must show up in court April 14 and pay $17,000, or a warrant could be issued for his arrest. . .

April 16 Update:  For more, see Christine Negroni’s post "Flim Flam and Shenanigans"

The last thing a victim needs just after an accident is for a crush of lawyers to show up on his doorstep, uninvited, pressuring him to sign up for a lawsuit.  But that’s what happens after just about every major air crash. That type of lawyer solicitation is distasteful, to say the least.

But thanks to a special law passed by Congress in 1996, it’s also illegal.  The law applies only to airline crashes and prohibits lawyers from contacting victims for the purposes of soliciting business for 45 days after the accident.  

Unsolicited communications.— In the event of an accident involving an air carrier providing interstate or foreign air transportation and in the event of an accident involving a foreign air carrier that occurs within the United States, no unsolicited communication concerning a potential action for personal injury or wrongful death may be made by an attorney (including any associate, agent, employee, or other representative of an attorney) or any potential party to the litigation to an individual injured in the accident, or to a relative of an individual involved in the accident, before the 45th day following the date of the accident."

Every aviation lawyer knows the rule.  But, unfortunately, not every aviation lawyer follows it. When lawyers cross the line, it’s up to the NTSB to set them straight.

Immediately after the Asiana 214 crash, word circulated within the aviation bar that, as usual, some attorneys couldn’t seem to restrain themselves and were doing whatever they could to get to the crash victims and get them to sign up for a lawsuit — even if it meant violating the law. According to an AP article by Paul Elias and Ian Mader, one firm in question is Chicago-based Ribbeck Law Chartered, which made the news recently after it filed legal papers on behalf of 83 of the Chinese victims it claims to represent.

The National Transportation Safety Board says it has received an unspecified number of complaints. . .  NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said. . . the NTSB reported one firm, Chicago-based Ribbeck Law Chartered, to the Illinois agency that regulates attorneys for further investigation of its on line communications and in-person meetings with passengers." 

According to the article, Ribbeck Law is not the only firm that has shown up at the hotel where victims were staying. The question will be whether the firms were invited or if they simply showed up.

Related Post:  Attorney Solicitation


In July, aviation lawyers Terry O’Reilly and James P. Collins were billing their firm, O’Reilly & Collins, as “the premier trial law firm in Northern California.” They claimed the firm had the financial resources to take on any fight, and that it was “one of the most successful plaintiff’s trial law firms in the United States.”  O’Reilly was a long-time member of the prestigious Inner Circle of Advocates, and had just been named a Northern California Super Lawyer. To celebrate, Collins and O’Reilly published ads showing the pair posing in front of Terry O’Reilly’s very expensive 1954 Bentley race car, talking about all the cases they have won. 


But today, O’Reilly & Collins is in bankruptcy, leaving its creditors holding the bag for millions.  All the firm’s lawyers, except for O’Reilly himself, have scattered.   

Court records show that the San Mateo aviation firm has passed off some of its clients to John Kristensen, one of O’Reilly’s former associates.  Other cases have been handed off to Jack Stein of the Boccardo firm in San Jose. Terry O’Reilly himself is holding on to at least one case involving the Pilatus crash at Butte, Montana

O’Reilly continues to be assisted by Pamela Stevens, a lawyer who, according to California State Bar records, bilked her injured clients, including children, out of millions in settlements. The Bar pulled Stevens’ license in 2002, finding that she posed a danger to the public.

In July, a San Francisco jury returned a verdict against O’Reilly & Collins for $3.2 million. The judge sanctioned O’Reilly personally for more than $107,000 for failing to turn over documents and then giving false testimony about it. 

The firm still has its office in San Mateo, but its website has been taken down.  Since the verdict, O’Reilly says that he has moved out of state. 

O’Reilly has paid neither the judgment nor the sanctions order. 

EMS helicopter crash cases aren’t easy.  A lawyer representing a victim’s family ought to have experience in helicopter crash cases.  If he doesn’t, he should bring into the case a lawyer who does.  What he should not do, obviously, is make up for lack of experience by bribing the judge. 

It’s shocking to think that a lawyer would ever bribe a judge.  But that’s what Texas lawyers Jim Solis and Marc Rosenthal did.   The judge admits itSo does Solis.  They bribed the judge for favorable pre-trial rulings, and then, after getting those rulings, they settled the helicopter crash case, Texas Lawyer Marc G. Rosenthalobtaining $15 million for the families involved. Out of the settlement, the attorneys ended up with a $5.2 million fee.

Now the attorneys are being sued by their clients. The clients want that $5.2 million back. According to the lawsuit:

Plaintiffs are innocent and without prior knowledge of Defendants’ criminal acts. Not only did Defendant breach their fiduciary duties to their clients, but in doing so they dishonored the memories of Michael T. Sanchez and Raul Garcia.

Under the law of many states, a lawyer who violates legal or ethical rules can be required to forfeit his or her fee. 

But even if legally entitled to the fee, are plaintiffs morally entitled to it?  After all, how were the families harmed by the lawyers’ scheme? The families ended up with a settlement which, presumably, they found acceptable.

Families who lose loved ones in a helicopter or other crash sue for money.  No doubt about that. But perhaps more importantly, victims’ families sue for justice.  They pay their attorneys to expose wrongdoing and hold accountable those responsible for an accident.  Putting aside all else, the attorneys in this case simply didn’t do that job. The Sanchez and Garcia families did not get what they paid for.  

The case is Sanchez v. Rosenthal et al.