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Joliet injury lawyer to become president of state association

Reprinted from Chicago Tribune
By Joseph Tybor
TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

Unlike other young lawyers just out of law school, Laird Ozmon did not have the concerns of where to work and what to do.

His father, Nat, was — and still is — considered one of the finest trial lawyers in Cook County as founder of a plaintiff’s injury firm, and there was little question that Laird Ozmon would start there.

Then, one Saturday in 1983, Laird asked his father out for breakfast at the famed Walnut Room at the Bismarck Hotel and dropped this bombshell: He was going to start his own personal injury firm in Joliet.

The move was in keeping with his independent youth — after high school, he had rejected an appointment to the Air Force Academy and sold vacuum cleaners for a time before deciding on law school.

But Laird’s father still was stunned. It would be a tough go, no guarantees.

Phil Corboy, well-known among Chicago’s plaintiffs’ lawyers, told Laird, “Kid, it takes a lot of guts to kick yourself out of the nest.” He then proceeded to feed Laird a few cases to help get him under way.

Nearly 15 years later, Laird Ozmon, 43, is well on his way. This week he will take over as president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, becoming the first personal-injury lawyer from Joliet to head the group.

His installation Friday also will mark the first time a father and a son have served as the group’s president. Nat Ozmon was president in 1969-70.
Laird Ozmon’s ascent follows some notable legal victories of his own, including two multi-million dollar verdicts against Black & Decker Inc., on behalf of two workers whose hands were amputated while they were using a miter saw that lacked a guard its designer had recommended.

Ozmon is taking over at a critical juncture in the association’s 25-year history and is expected to spearhead a change in the way it does political business, by focusing on Republicans as well as Democrats.

The association, considered one of the most influential lobbying groups in Springfield and a group that largely supports Democrats, still is reeling from the 1994 election that gave Republicans control of both houses of the Illinois legislature, as well as the governorship.

One of the results was an overhaul of Illinois tort law. Republicans said their aim was to reduce frivolous lawsuits and to cut legal costs for insurance companies, manufacturers and the medical profession.

The primary change was to limit the amount of money a person injured through someone else’s negligence could recover for pain and suffering and disability.

The trial lawyers and some consumer groups considered the legislation a gutting of victims’ rights.

Lawyers also considered the legislation a direct attack on them by the republican-controlled state government and their allies in manufacturing, business and medicine. Lawyers’ fees can be pegged to a percentage of the money recovered.

“They’re out to stick a knife into the heart of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association because certainly we have been a nemesis of theirs as they are to us.”

The trial lawyers already have fought back, raising more than a half-million dollars from their 2,200 members in a special assessment to challenge the law’s constitutionality.

Included in their strategy was hiring Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, one of the nation’s most noted constitutional experts, to argue their case recently before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Lower court judges have declared parts of the law unconstitutional, and a 4-3 Democratic majority on the high court does not hurt the trial lawyers’ chances of nullifying it.

The trial lawyers have been among the biggest and most generous supporters of House Speaker Michael Madigan and his Democrats. Their latest report filed with the State Board of Elections shows political expenditures of $329.750 for the six months ending Dec. 31. That does not include individual contributions from their members.

Dues range from $10 to $1,000 a year, depending on how long a lawyer has been in practice. Those at the top of the profession are assessed for special projects such as the constitutional challenge to the reform laws.

“We make no bones about it,” Ozmon said. “We certainly are an organization that is politically active and will be politically active and we want the other side to know that.”

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