Dennis M. O’Hara
Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together
Dennis O’Hara clearly remembers the crash of Valujet flight 592 in the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996. A few minutes after takeoff, the cabin of the DC-9 caught on fire. Although the pilot tried to make an emergency landing at Miami International Airport, it was too late. Everyone on board, 105 passengers and five crew members died in the crash.
“It turned out that another company named SabreTech had placed five boxes of expired oxygen generators in the cargo area against FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations,” says O’Hara, who was lead counsel for Valujet in the multi-district litigation. “The boxes were mislabeled when given to the loaders on the cargo ramp, and rather than covering the tops of the containers correctly, they simply used duct tape.”
The lesson for trial attorneys is clear, says O’Hara, the Fort Lauderdale managing partner for Wicker Smith O’Hara McCoy & Ford. “You have to help the jury put all the pieces of the puzzle together, because the case may be more involved than it appears on first glance,” he says. “I tell a jury that reaching a verdict is like reading a mystery novel: Don’t decide how it will come out until you come to the last page.”
In more than 30 years as a trial attorney, O’Hara has served as lead counsel or sole attorney for the defense in numerous civil jury trials involving medical malpractice, products liability, general negligence, automobile liability and aviation law. “Our niche is serving companies that face serious legal problems,” he says. “We develop a strategy, prepare for trial and strive to convince the jury.”
One of the first cases O’Hara tried back in the 1970s was against plaintiff’s attorney Stuart Z. Grossman, founding partner at Grossman Roth, P.A., Miami. Since then, the two have often squared off in the courtroom and share a mutual respect for each other. “Dennis is a worthy opponent and a very decent man,” says Grossman. “In fact, Wicker Smith has a tremendous group of straight shooters — a culture that comes from Dennis and partner Jack McCoy. They are big-picture attorneys, which benefits the clients because they keep cases moving forward.”
Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, O’Hara earned a bachelor’s degree from Muhlenberg College in 1965 and his law degree from Villanova University in 1968. “I was like a lot of college students — not sure about what I wanted to do after graduation,” O’Hara says. He enjoyed playing football as a wide receiver for Mulhenberg and worked as a lifeguard in the summer. Then, he started thinking about a professional career. “I was leaning toward the accounting and the financial side, but I did well on the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) and opted to go to law school.”
After earning his law degree, O’Hara joined a Pennsylvania law firm as a litigator. “My practice was 75 percent civil with some high-profile criminal work,” he says. “I actually tried two capital cases, but decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do as a lawyer.”
One of the firm’s civil litigation clients was General Acceptance Corporation (GAC), a national holding company with manufacturing and land development subsidiaries. The land company was based on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, and O’Hara began coming down to work with Wicker Smith, GAC’s local law firm. “I would fly down in February and see the sunshine and no snow,” he says. “Eventually, Wicker Smith offered me a job. I was single and liked the sunshine, so I told my parents this change would be an adventure for me. It turned out to be the best career move I ever made.”
At the time, Wicker Smith had only one office in Miami with about 15 lawyers in the firm. “They had a great reputation and handled a lot of litigation for major companies, including a lot of automotive work,” he says. In 1975, he was named a managing partner and asked to open the Fort Lauderdale office.
In 1999, O’Hara was inducted into the International Academy of Trial Lawyers — an invitation-only organization of 500 lawyers worldwide. He is also a member of International Association of Defense Counsel, American Society of Law and Medicine, the Florida Medical Malpractice Claims Council, the Florida Defense Lawyers Association and the Defense Research Institute.
With his skills in business development, as well as litigation, O’Hara has helped Wicker Smith grow to a 138-attorney firm with seven offices in Florida. “As part of the management team, I have enjoyed being involved in the firm’s growth,” he says. “You have to figure out the right places to open your offices and put the correct personnel in place. Fortunately, we’ve attracted many excellent trial lawyers and great partners.”
On the legal side, O’Hara has been involved in aviation law since the late 1970s. Over the years, he has handled both commercial and general aviation cases, representing clients like AIG Aviation, Allianz, American, Delta, Global Aerospace, Starr Aviation, USAIRWAYS, United States Aviation Underwriters and XL Aerospace.
He was involved in the 2001 crash in The Bahamas of a Cessna 402 carrying the entertainer, Aaliyah, and was lead counsel for Chalks in the crash of a Grumman Mallard seaplane in Miami harbor on December 19, 2005.
Drawing on his aviation law experience, O’Hara served as a moderator at the American Bar Association’s 2006 Aviation Litigation Annual Conference, in Washington, presiding at the session “Outsourcing Maintenance: What It Means for Carriers and Insurers.”
Medical malpractice defense and healthcare litigation is another aspect of O’Hara’s practice. Since the 1980s, he and the firm have represented more than 100 Florida hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare clients in cases concerning issues related to wrongful death, infant death, brain damage, paralysis, surgical and nursing issues. He represented NutriSystem, Inc. in class action litigation involving over 300 lawsuits concerning the NutriSystem Weight Loss Centers and now serves as counsel for the Swiss Hoffmann-La Roche companies.
O’Hara also has a long-standing legal — and personal — connection to Key Biscayne, where he lived for more than 35 years. O’Hara and his wife Susan raised their two daughters, Kelly and Kristin, in their waterfront home, before they headed off to school at the University of Miami and New York University respectively. “With our daughters in college, I sold my boat and started playing more golf,” O’Hara says. “This past year we moved to Coral Gables, just a few minutes from our Miami office.”
For roughly 17 years, O’Hara served as volunteer special magistrate for the Village of Key Biscayne, holding hearings on a wide range of code-related matters. One of the most contentious issues resulted from a request by the current property owner of President Richard Nixon’s former winter White House property. The federal government had installed a helicopter pad for Nixon’s use, and the owner was cited for various county and municipal code violations for using the helicopter pad for its private use. O’Hara ruled against the property owner, citing issues of federal supremacy and preemption, holding that the helicopter pad could not be converted to private use. The property owner appealed, and O’Hara’s findings were upheld by the appellate courts.
Now, O’Hara is adjusting to life on the other side of the Rickenbacker Causeway, and looking forward to the next phase of his life. “Five years from now, I may be doing more traveling, but I expect to keep right on working,” he says. “That’s what I really enjoy.”
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