A primary purpose of the law should be to protect us from the hazards in our society. Many have devoted their lives to such a noble purpose. One of these is one you likely have never heard of, Harry Philo Sr. Mr. Philo died on the morning of May 12, 2012, in Queensbury, New York. He was one of the greatest legal minds in the history of American jurisprudence. The world is a safer place because of Mr. Philo.

I became acquainted with Mr. Philo when I began practicing plaintiff’s personal injury law in the middle 1980s. I was encouraged to join an organization which was known at the time as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, commonly known as ATLA. The name of the organization has been changed to the American Association for Justice, but the mission is still the same. We are frequently vilified by the forces of darkness, but I am proud to call myself a trial attorney and am especially proud of the work I have been doing for the past 38 years on behalf of my clients. Oftentimes the playing field in America’s courtrooms is not level and frankly unfair. Justice has become expensive and in many cases the one who has the most money wins.

I firmly believe that the primary reason we trial attorneys are vilified is because we have joined together to help level the playing field. We are the villains because eliminating hazards is an expensive business. In numerous cases, lawsuits exposing hazards and the risks that flow from such hazards have helped make the cars we drive, the airplanes we fly in and the highways we travel on safer. The provision of health care is safer and almost every aspect of our life exposed to hazards and risks is safer because of the great work people like Harry Philo have done.

My former partner, Mike Manners, introduced me to ATLA and I attended my first national convention which was held in the late 1980s in Kansas City. Thereafter, for many years I attended the national convention because the educational programs and the exchange of information was so valuable. Some of our former partners sometimes questioned our attendance at those meetings because there was significant expense associated with attending a meeting in Boston or Chicago or San Francisco. However, Mike and I always returned energized and armed with much information. Occasionally, we were questioned about the expenses, but when we showed our partners how it helped our clients, the questions ended.

It was at one of those national conventions of ATLA that I first heard Harry Philo speak. There were over 500 hundred lawyers in the room which was a testament to his wisdom. He was in his 70s at the time and had quit trying cases, but he was more than willing to share his wisdom with anyone who would listen to him. He suggested that many injuries and deaths can be explained by examining the hazards and determining the risks associated with them. For example, driving while drunk is a hazard and the risks are obvious.

Mr. Philo also published a treatise called the Lawyer’s Desk Reference, a three-volume set that was first published in the 1960s. The premise of his book was that there are too many preventable injuries and deaths in our society and the cost of those injuries and death is more than the entire defense budget. Harry Philo believed that “the law is never settled until it is right, and it is never right until it is just and serves society to the maximum.” He also recognized that the social purpose of tort law is accident and injury prevention. He taught that there are many hazards with many risks. Some hazards and risks are recognizable, but the injured party did not recognize that there were safety engineering alternatives available. Mr. Philo believed that a moral society seeks to minimize injuries and deaths from hazards and we can minimize almost all of them, but that only comes with safety engineering. Telling people to be careful causes more injuries than it prevents.

The primary purpose of the Lawyer’s Desk Reference was to educate lawyers who represent those who are injured on safety information available in science, technology and in medicine. He educated his readers on the various fields and provided invaluable information on how to approach the cases and to utilize the vast resources available to help clients. I used the books many times, but frankly stop using it because of the vast information now available on the internet. My last volumes were published in 1993 and are outdated, but the dusty books remain on my shelves.

I was privileged to hear Mr. Philo speak a few times and when I did I knew I was in the presence of greatness. His wisdom came from a lifetime of research and investigation. He was a very successful lawyer who practiced in Detroit and his son, Harry Philo Jr., has continued his legacy. The books are expensive, but are worth every penny. Although Mr. Philo did not seek public acclaim or attention, I assure you that automobiles, airplanes, highways, hospitals and a host of products are safer because of the amazing work of this legal giant. The world is clearly safer than before he began, but there is much work to do because we are still a long way from the safe places where Mr. Philo wanted us to live, work, and play.

 

-- Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com