Flying high: Aviation law attorney's cases include 9/11 crashes

Aviation attorney Justin Schmidt served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan, Iraq, and California.

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News
On attorney Justin Schmidt’s first day with an aviation law firm in New York City, he was assigned to the 9/11 case, representing American Airlines, which operated two of the four airplanes crashed by terrorists.
“Instead of reading a complaint or memo to get started, I was handed a dog-eared copy of the 9/11 Commission Report and told to read it cover to cover to familiarize myself with the facts of the case,” he says. 

Schmidt worked on the case for several years, as did nearly half his colleagues, along with numerous other law firms. 

“The case involved millions of pages of documents, countless depositions, hundreds of motions and written submissions, and the case touched on many different areas of law, including torts, property damage, insurance law, federal preemption, complex litigation, choice of law, and evidence,” he says. 

Other aviation disasters he has been involved in include Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed in 2009 en route from Newark to Buffalo; and the 2001 American Airlines Flight 587 disaster, when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff into the New York City borough of Queens, killing 260 on board and five on the ground.

Now a partner in the aviation and litigation practice groups with Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss PC in Southfield, Schmidt focuses his practice on aviation liability claims—representing airlines, aircraft manufacturers, component manufacturers, aircraft owners and operators, aircraft rental, leasing and repair facilities, airports and insurance carriers. He also specializes in military product liability accident cases involving the government contractor defense.

He works with pilots, flight attendants, aviation mechanics, aircraft component manufacturers, airport and airline employees, medical providers, and government agencies like the NTSB, FAA, local police and fire departments, and airport authorities. 

“My work provides opportunities to spend time outside the office on inspections of crash sites, wreckage components, airports, airfields, hangars, and maintenance facilities, meeting with witnesses, as well as frequently attending depositions and court hearings,” says Schmidt, who is admitted in Michigan, New York and New Jersey and who just passed the California bar exam. “There’s a lot of travel involved as we handle cases all over the country and our clients and witnesses are located throughout the country.”

Schmidt’s entry into the law was a little unusual – studying for his LSAT during a seven-month combat tour in Iraq.

A member of the U.S. Marine Corps Platoon Leader’s Course in his undergrad years at the University of Michigan, he spent four years as a logistics officer in the Marine Corps. He was responsible for aircraft ground support and logistics at a Marine Air Wing in Okinawa, Japan; and served as a logistics officer in charge of motor vehicles and vehicle operators for an infantry battalion at Camp Pendleton in California. 

During his time in Iraq, where he planned and led convoys to resupply infantry posts in and around Fallujah, Schmidt spent a lot of time speaking with the battalion’s Judge Advocate Officer about law school and the possibility of becoming a Marine Corps Judge Advocate Officer or a civilian attorney. 

He studied for the LSAT exam in the evenings in Iraq, took the LSAT after returning from Iraq and still serving on active duty, and headed to Rutgers University School of Law in 2005, where he served as managing editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal. 

“I was always interested in history, politics, government, and enjoyed reading and writing, and a law degree seemed to combine these interests rather well,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be a litigator but I was not familiar with aviation law as a specialty.”

When researching law firms for a summer internship, he noticed that firms specializing in aviation law and maritime law had several attorneys who were veterans. After interning at the boutique aviation defense firm of Condon & Forsyth LLP in midtown Manhattan, he worked there for five years following graduation.

“I enjoyed the experience as a new attorney working on exciting, often very high profile aviation disaster cases with an excellent group of colleagues,” he says. “I worked on all aspects of litigation and couldn’t have asked for a better place to start my career. I enjoyed living in Hoboken, New Jersey and spending time in New York City and all that the city had to offer.” 

Schmidt and his wife, who met as undergrads at U-M, eventually decided to return to Ann Arbor. 

“As fate would have it, Jaffe’s head of the aviation litigation group was looking to expand his practice and needed an associate,” he says. 

“My aviation litigation background was the perfect fit, including the fact that several of our clients were the same – we did nearly the same work, just in different states.”

The Grand Rapids native and oldest of nine enjoys spending time with his wife and sons, ages 4 and 1, as well as travel, running, U-M football, Ann Arbor restaurants, and attending Tigers and Red Wings games.

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