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O’Connell, ‘Giant’ of Insurance Law Reform and Longtime U.Va. Law Professor, Dies

Jeffrey O’Connell, a pioneer of insurance law reform and a member of the University of Virginia School of Law’s faculty for 32 years, died Sunday. He was 84.

“By seeing the connection between tort law and insurance law, Jeff O’Connell transformed both and influenced scholars, judges, and legislators,” Dean Paul G. Mahoney said. “He was also a beloved teacher and mentor to generations of Virginia students. We will all miss his intellect, wit and charm.”

In 1965, O’Connell and Harvard Law School professor Robert Keeton co-authored the landmark book “Basic Protection for the Traffic Victim: A Blueprint for Reforming Automobile Insurance,” which envisioned a more efficient system for handling claims that was dubbed “no-fault” insurance.

O’Connell and Keeton – who went on to become a federal judge and died in 2007 – lobbied across the country for no-fault insurance laws. At least a dozen states implemented no-fault laws, while several others enacted variations. O’Connell also traveled around the globe to push for the idea, helping to launch the concept in Israel, Australia and New Zealand.

Guido Calabresi, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and preeminent tort scholar, said he “thought the world” of O’Connell.

“Jeff O’Connell was a remarkable scholar because he was a scholar who actually worked to get his scholarship into the world where it would do some real good,” Calabresi said. “He and Bob Keeton came up with what was one of the most promising reforms – true reforms, unlike many things that go by the name of reform – of tort law. And Bob’s part of that was entirely the theory. Jeff picked that up and then made it into something that was both practical and retained its theoretical integrity.”

O’Connell and Keeton’s plan in 1965 for a tort law model took blame out of the equation in order to remove the civil trial process – in which lawyers take a significant share of any award or settlement – and instead expedite payment to accident victims. In exchange, the victims had to give up potentially large payouts for pain and suffering.

Later, O’Connell fought for decades for similar laws to apply to medical malpractice cases. Most recently, he helped draft the nation’s first “early offer” system for medical malpractice claims, which became law in New Hampshire in June. The law established incentives for defendants to make offers early in the litigation process to cover plaintiff’s economic losses, such as for lost wages and medical bills.

Shortly before retiring from the U.Va. law faculty in May, O’Connell described his work on tort law reform as an effort to build a fair-yet-efficient system for accident victims and policyholders.

“One of the problems with tort law is that it’s a combination of morality with amorality, because you are talking about a wrongdoer paying the innocent party – but the whole thing is underwritten by insurance, which in turn is based on mathematics,” he said. “That is a basic problem with tort law – it’s this combination of mixing up morality and mathematics, which are a very ill fit.”

Peter Bell, a Syracuse University College of Law professor who co-authored with O’Connell the 1977 book “Accidental Justice: The Dilemmas of Tort Law,” called O’Connell one of the “true giants of tort law.”

“Probably no other scholar of accident law in history has had as much practical impact on major legal change in this area,” Bell said. “He was the father of no-fault law in that field – probably the most revolutionary major reform in tort law in the past 100 years.”

Bell added that his experience of writing a book with O’Connell was “the best I have ever had with a fellow academic.”

“Jeff displayed all the intellectual and writing skills that have made him famous, as we worked together,” he said. “However, what I also got to see was an extraordinary generosity of spirit, kindness to a much-less-celebrated colleague and openness to my sometimes-quite-different perspectives on the problems and solutions about which we were writing.”

He added that O’Connell’s passing “leaves not just a hole in the hearts of those who knew him and in the world of tort law – it leaves a crater.”

O’Connell, who graduated from Harvard Law, joined the U.Va. law faculty in 1980 and taught insurance and torts until his retirement. At the Law School, he was the Samuel H. McCoy II Professor of Law Emeritus.

During lectures, O’Connell was known to occasionally lament: “If I’d known tort reform would have been this difficult, I would have taken on something easier – like reformation of the Catholic Church.”

Prior to joining U.Va.’s faculty, O’Connell taught at the University of Illinois for 16 years and was a trial lawyer in Boston with the firm of Hale & Dorr.

He also taught at the University of Iowa and was a visiting professor at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, and Oxford and Cambridge universities in England.

O’Connell was the recipient of Guggenheim fellowships in 1973 and 1979. In 1989, he was the Thomas Jefferson Visiting Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge University and, in 1991, the John Marshall Harlan Visiting Distinguished Professor at New York Law School. In 1992, he received the Robert B. McKay Award for Tort and Insurance Scholarship from the American Bar Association.

He had served on the board of directors of Consumers Union, the Educational Advisory Board of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Medical and Safety Committee of the NCAA.

In recent years, O’Connell helped design an “early offers” plan in which businesses facing personal injury lawsuits could promptly pay injured parties for out-of-pocket medical expenses and lost wages.

“Early offers creates a simple device,” O’Connell said in 2008. “A business facing a personal injury claim is given the option within 180 days after a claim is filed of offering to guarantee no-fault-like periodic payments toward a claimant’s medical expenses and wage loss beyond any other applicable coverage, plus 10 percent for attorneys’ fees. There would be no compensation for pain and suffering. On average, the wait for payment from the time of the claim would be reduced by at least 2 1/2 years compared with today’s tort system.”

Since 1966, O’Connell wrote or co-wrote 12 books dealing with accident law, published dozens of articles on tort and insurance law, and lectured across the United States and around the world.

O’Connell never stopped pushing for reform, despite opposition from many quarters.

“Between Keeton and myself, we must have gone to almost every state in the union to testify before the state legislature or before an insurance meeting or before a bar meeting,” O’Connell said in May. “It was very controversial. The trial bar was bitterly opposed to it, and I can understand that – we were changing their way of doing things in a drastic way and costing them a lot of income and work in which they believed.”

Widener Law School Professor Chris Robinette, a former student of O’Connell’s who co-authored a book on tort reform with him in 2008, called O’Connell “a virtuoso classroom teacher and a scholar whose work directly impacted people’s lives.”

“Today there is a resurgence of interest in Jeffrey’s ideas, both in the United States and internationally,” he said. “His primary focus on making compensation more readily available to the injured reflected his immense sense of compassion. He will be missed.”

O’Connell is survived by his daughter Mara O’Connell, son Devin O’Connell, sister Jesslyn McNamara and brother Thomas E. O’Connell. O’Connell co-authored many publications with his brother, who also worked in higher education, including a book published last year, “Five 20th Century College Presidents: From Butler to Bok (Plus Summers).”

A visitation will be held Friday from 6 to 7 p.m. at Teague Funeral Service at 2260 Ivy Road in Charlottesville. A funeral mass will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish at 401 Alderman Road in Charlottesville. And a commemorative celebration will be held Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. at Farmington Country Club at 1626 Country Club Circle in Charlottesville.

In lieu of flowers, O’Connell’s family asked that donations be made to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad. To donate online, click here.

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