Mary Schiavo: From whistleblower to SC lawyer and aviation expert

Mary Schiavo speaks about aviation safety at a 2009 news conference. Schiavo once served as inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, but stepped down after voicing concerns about the agency’s focus on passenger safety following the 1996 crash of a ValuJet in Florida.
Mary Schiavo speaks about aviation safety at a 2009 news conference. Schiavo once served as inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, but stepped down after voicing concerns about the agency’s focus on passenger safety following the 1996 crash of a ValuJet in Florida. FILE PHOTO/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mary Schiavo has been turning heads for a long time.

Sure, she modeled a bit and even ended up on the cover of Glamour magazine in 1975. But her looks aren’t what impress people most. Rather, for the woman nicknamed “Maximum Mary,” it’s her ambition.

Schiavo has been many things in life, from champion baton twirler to prosecutor to White House staffer to author. These days, she is a high-profile transportation lawyer at one of the country’s most prestigious law firms, Motley Rice, headquartered in Mount Pleasant just across the river from downtown Charleston. She’s also an aviation analyst for CNN, appearing on cable news anytime a plane falls from the sky.

Schiavo has a longstanding interest in airplanes, having earned her pilot’s license at 18 years old. And one could argue her career has mirrored that of a typical flight – starting quickly, rapidly gaining altitude and, then, suffering a period of turbulence before finding smoother skies.

It was after a burnout with the U.S. Department of Transportation, where Schiavo resigned as inspector general in 1996 after publicly criticizing U.S. flight safety regulations, that her career eventually took off in a new direction.

100 Convictions secured by Mary Schiavo and colleagues in a crackdown on counterfeit airplane parts.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Schiavo began representing the victims of transportation disasters, including air crashes.

Schiavo and a small number of other transportation lawyers occupy a unique niche in the U.S. legal world. Their task is challenging; they often work on more than a dozen transportation accidents or disasters at a time, with each, on average, taking years of time and hundreds of thousands dollars in fees and expenses for expert witnesses and investigations.

To determine the cause of an accident, the litigators oversee the reconstruction of planes and other vehicles that have crashed into pieces. The detective work is a necessary supplement to government investigations of crashes, which are sometimes not as comprehensive as the litigators would like and – occasionally, according to Schiavo – just plain wrong.

The lawyers also spend much time explaining the legal ins and outs to the bereaved families that are their clients.

“You’re kind of one part educator, one part lawyer and, of course, a private eye because you have to sleuth it all together,” said Schiavo, who traveled to China and Malaysia last summer to meet with families who lost relatives aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared on March 8, 2014, and is thought to have crashed in the Indian Ocean.

The awards can be large in a successful transportation disaster case. But the money and vindication delivered by a favorable verdict inevitably is offset by the personal losses experienced by the plaintiffs.

“You’re dealing with people who have lost everything, and they lost it in an instant,” said Dan Barks, a Washington, D.C., partner with the aviation litigation firm Speiser Krause.

To give these clients closure, an exhausting amount of work can be required, said Barks, a former Navy aviator and 1996 graduate of the University of South Carolina law school.

That might mean piecing together shards of glass from a shattered windshield, picking through personal belongings mixed with plane parts, studying engineering schematics or looking for clues among severely scorched debris, all to determine who may be liable.

“It’s not easy. If you don’t really love it, you’re not going to be any good at it,” said Barks. “You have to have a real passion, bordering on hysteria for the truth.”

‘Maximum Mary’

Born America Fackler (she preferred Mary Lou), Schiavo grew up as one of four sisters on a farm in Pioneer, Ohio.

Her father was in the Air Force, and her mother worked in the office of an air services company that provided crop dusting and barnstorming. Predictably, Schiavo became fascinated by aviation, and her father gave her the gift of her first plane ride at age 9.

Schiavo was an A student in high school and busy with extracurricular activities. Beauty queen, amateur flier, ventriloquist, baton twirler, science fair exhibitor – you name it, she did it.

In a 1975 article in People magazine, Schiavo was profiled beside an emerging actor by the name of John Travolta. Both were labeled up-and-comers, with a writer noting Schiavo possessed “competitive instincts that would have made the founding fathers proud.”

Schiavo began classes at Ohio State University two weeks after graduating from high school, not wanting to waste any time. When Ohio State did not prove challenging enough, she transferred to Harvard.

There, she caught the eye of Glamour, who put her on its cover as one of the “Top Ten College Women.” (Twelve years later, in 1987, she again appeared in Glamour, this time noted as an “Outstanding Young Working Woman.”)

You’re dealing with people who have lost everything, and they lost it in an instant.”

Dan Barks, partner with the aviation litigation firm Speiser Krause, on plane crash victims’ families

After Harvard, it was law school at New York University, where she worked part time in the office of the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York. Low on the totem pole, she was tasked with listening to undercover wire tapes and verifying that an accompanying transcript was accurate.

“I’d put on my headphones, and I’d listen to mobsters talk about whacking each other,” Schiavo said in a recent interview. “An amazing job.”

A few years after graduating from law school, Schiavo became a federal prosecutor in Kansas City, thinking the position to be “just about the highest calling.” Missouri is where Schiavo earned the nickname “Maximum Mary,” nearly always asking for the maximum possible sentence following a conviction. Schiavo says judges rarely imposed the maximum punishment, however, despite her belief that each defendant found guilty was deserving of such treatment for crimes that included bank robbery, embezzlement and videocassette fraud.

In time, Schiavo tired of the work. It felt monotonous.

“You think you’ve made a dent, but you didn’t,” she said. “It just got to the point where it was drug case after drug case.”

She also grappled with her perception of uneven justice. Federal prosecutors might dismiss a drug case featuring a few seeds of marijuana, for example. A local prosecutor, however, might obtain a conviction for the same case that put someone behind bars for years.

“So much depends on the luck of the draw,” Schiavo said. “Whose desk does your prosecution end up on?”

She segued into combating organized crime as part of a federal task force, interviewing cooperating witnesses to learn their criminal history – for which they were granted immunity from prosecution. Again, she was privy to the secrets of the underworld.

“It was like ‘The View,’ except on the other side of the table was a mobster,” Schiavo said. “One guy’s nickname was Chum. Not because he was chummy with people but because he chopped up his victims and dropped them in Lake Erie.”

‘Wild and irresponsible rhetoric’

After working in Missouri on the successful presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, Schiavo was accepted to work as a White House fellow. She moved through a few jobs at federal agencies until, in 1990, she became inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the department’s top investigative official with both criminal and civil jurisdiction.

Mary Schiavo resigned from the U.S. Transportation Department, in part over passenger safety after the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida that killed 110 people.

Schiavo made waves at the Transportation Department, helping initiate a crackdown on counterfeit airplane parts that included having the FBI set up an undercover operation with bogus storefronts. Schiavo and her colleagues secured more than 100 convictions related to counterfeit plane parts, but some critics thought her crusade was overblown.

“She is widely considered to be a media maven who relishes her moment in the spotlight,” said James Coyne, then-president of the National Air Transportation Association. “But she’s unwilling to listen to people with more substantive experience in aviation safety than she has.”

Others, used to inspectors general behaving more like auditors, were alarmed at Schiavo’s prosecutorial zeal.

She became critical of the Federal Aviation Administration, accusing the organization of being lax on passenger safety. This criticism intensified, publicly, following the 1996 crash of ValuJet 592 in South Florida that killed 110 people. After her boss, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena, declared ValuJet safe to fly soon after the crash, Schiavo disagreed with him and resigned.

“I was angry … I said, ‘They’re not going to lie about this thing,” Schiavo said at the time. “I knew there’d be a lot of fallout but, at that point, I just didn’t care.”

A book, “Flying Blind, Flying Safe,” soon followed, detailing Schiavo’s complaints about the FAA and the airline industry in regards to safety. Still she had critics who deemed her an alarmist.

“I am aghast at her wild and irresponsible rhetoric,” said James Burnley IV, a former transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan who transitioned into a legal career defending transportation companies.

Leaving Washington behind, Schiavo returned to Ohio State University, this time as a professor. Teaching government ethics was a welcome reprieve, especially after Schiavo’s second marriage fell apart in 1999, leaving her with two young children.

“Being a professor was a godsend for a suddenly single mom,” she said.

‘We changed things’

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Schiavo re-entered the legal arena, representing families who lost loved ones aboard hijacked flights.

In 2003, she was hired by Motley Rice, a new law firm formed in Charleston after the breakup of Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson and Poole, which made hundreds of millions in attorney fees through asbestos and tobacco litigation.

The co-founders of the new firm included Ron Motley, a hard-charging and flamboyant attorney portrayed in the film “The Insider” about tobacco litigation.

“Wipe that smirk off your face,” Motley’s character says in the film. “I’m going to take my witness’ testimony whether the hell you like it or not.”

Motley died in 2013 but not before helping make Motley Rice one of the most respected, or feared, litigation firms in the country, practicing in areas that today range from anti-terrorism to medical devices to securities to whistleblowing suits.

Robert A. Clifford, a Chicago lawyer who says he has represented passengers in nearly every major domestic air crash in the last three decades, is complimentary of Schiavo and other Motley Rice lawyers.

“These are hard-working folks who get it right and do it in a professional way,” says Clifford, previously chairman of the American Bar Association’s litigation section.

For Schiavo and other lawyers working on the 9/11 cases, it took more than 10 years to resolve all the litigation. While the bulk of the victims’ families received compensation from a $7 billion fund created by Congress, others represented by attorneys settled with airlines and security companies for estimated awards of more than $500 million, though the settlements mostly are confidential.

Planes don’t just fall out of the sky. I’ve had enough training and experience to know that when they go down, something went wrong.

Mary Schiavo, who represents victims of transportation disasters

Beyond the settlements, Schiavo says a wonderful consequence of the lawsuits was the creation of the Transportation Security Administration and the government taking control of airline security.

“That was a line in the sand,” she said. “We changed things dramatically.”

Since then, Schiavo has represented more families who have lost loved ones in transportation crashes.

‘Graveyard engineering’

Transportation lawyers live in a macabre world, learning unnerving facts.

When discussing planes flying through storms, for example, Schiavo is quick to point out the law does not consider lightning an act of God, as planes must be designed to withstand a strike. Talking about bus crashes, she matter-of-factly offers: “That’s usually driver error, school buses and passenger buses, although those injuries are often compounded by the fact that people aren’t wearing seat belts. They get thrown around more, and they roll …”

That is not to say Schiavo is insensitive. The lawyer can become emotional, her voice softening, especially when thinking of the conversations she has had with the relatives of victims.

“It’s heartbreaking talking to them,” said Schiavo.

If Schiavo felt previously that being a federal prosecutor was “the highest calling,” she seems to have shifted her opinion, joining other litigators in thinking they’re part of a cause that benefits everyone, not just their clients.

Plaintiff’s attorneys, in general, have been criticized for sometimes winning astronomical, oversized verdicts and bringing frivolous lawsuits. But transportation litigators reject that claim.

Clifford notes the massive amounts of time and money that transportation litigators must spend on each case without any guarantee of success. “As a plaintiff’s lawyer you’d have to be nuts to bring a case that’s not meritorious.”

By holding companies accountable, Clifford continued, transportation becomes safer for everyone.

“It’s called graveyard engineering. People have died to cause greater safety measures to be taken,” he said. “When it’s cheaper to kill you than make the product safer, what do you think is going to happen?”

Schiavo says she is enraged, too, when no one steps forward to remedy the deaths or serious injuries of passengers.

“Planes don’t just fall out of the sky,” she said. “I’ve had enough training and experience to know that when they go down, something went wrong.

“It make me so angry when they deny all responsibility. It’s so unfair, because (the victims) have done nothing. They trusted somebody to transport them. I guess for me, it’s the fight against people who won’t accept responsibility for what they’ve done.”

Still, there are limits, no matter how great the outrage.

When assessing Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in war-torn Ukraine in July 17, 2014, reportedly after being hit by a missile, Schiavo decided to take a pass on the case, at least for now.

“I don’t ever want to put families through the ordeal of litigation when I don’t think I can deliver,” said Schiavo.

Mary Schiavo

Profession: Attorney with the Motley Rice law firm, based in Mount Pleasant

Previously: Professor, Ohio State University, 1997-2002; U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general, 1990-96; White House fellow; assistant U.S. attorney

Author of: “Flying Blind, Flying Safe,” a New York Times bestseller on the safety and security practices of the airlines and the federal government’s failure to properly regulate the aviation industry.

Also: A frequent on-air contributor or consultant for several TV networks on travel-safety issues

Education: Law degree, New York University School of Law, 1980; masters, Ohio State University, 1977; bachelor’s, Harvard University, 1976