Area attorney defends high stakes claims


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Bill Osantowski once defended a wrongful death claim involving a steel mill operator of a slag hauler, an enormous tractor-like piece of equipment used to haul as much as 250 tons of molten steel by-product at one time.

“The allegation was that hydraulic components in the steering system failed causing the slag hauler to veer off course and plunge into a river on the mill property,” explained Osantowski, a partner at Foley & Mansfield in Detroit and co-chair of the firm’s Product Liability group. “When the molten metal contacted the river water a horrific explosion occurred that threw the slag hauler several hundred feet back on shore.”

During the course of discovery, plaintiffs and defendants engaged several experts.

“Our experts on the defense side could not find evidence of any defect in our client’s system,” Osantowski added. “However, further investigation disclosed the possibility the hauler was intentionally driven into the river. We interviewed a co-worker witness who indicated that the decedent at some point stated that driving a slag hauler into the river would be a painless form of suicide.”

Osantowski, who practices in the product liability, personal injury defense and toxic tort and mass tort litigation groups, has defended multi-million-dollar industrial equipment and playground equipment personal injury cases.

He has represented premises owners in defense of asbestos, mold, lead paint, and other toxic exposure personal injury claims.

Since the late 1980s, a significant portion of his practice has been dedicated to the defense of asbestos third-party injury cases locally and in some instances as a client’s national coordinating counsel.

“I find the national representation extremely interesting,” he said, “because it allows me the opportunity to work closely with some of the most talented attorneys across the country and helps me to identify and take advantage of constantly evolving strategic and tactical moves employed elsewhere and use it to place our clients in the best position to successfully defend their interests,” he says. 

Osantowski also enjoys the challenge of representing clients in other states where the product liability laws are substantially different than in Michigan.

“Not too long ago a defendant’s worst nightmare was to find itself embroiled in litigation in Texas, Mississippi and Southern Illinois — multi-million-dollar verdicts seemed to be the norm rather than the exception,” he explained. “Subsequent legislative tort reform has brought litigation in Texas and Mississippi to a virtual end while states like California and New York see the most trial activity.”

According to Osantowski — who previously practiced as a criminal defense attorney — product liability law began to change with the passage of tort reform legislation in 1995. 

“By and large, the changes in the ensuing years benefit the defense of a claim in the form of a cap on non-economic damages, several liability, discontinuance of punitive damage awards in all product cases, and statutory preemption in pharmaceutical personal injury claims,” he said.

Osantowski has served on the firm’s executive committee since its inception eight years ago.

Initially meeting quarterly, the committee now meets more often since the firm has grown to more than 330 employees in eight offices across the country.

The committee’s primary function is to address firm-wide issues that include matters related to policies, human resources, technology, best practices, ethics, and other matters.

“Before the committee was formed, I was fully aware of the issues that had a direct impact on our Detroit office but I was not in tune with the operation and challenges facing our folks in the other offices,” Osantowski said.

“Our firm’s co-founder, managing partner and leader of the Executive Committee, Kyle Mansfield, lives with this aspect of our firm every single day,” he said. “He’s an inspiration to me, and my closest friend at the firm.”

Before the committee was formed, Osantowski said, “all of the heavy lifting was left to Kyle. The committee is in many ways a sounding board for Kyle’s innovative management ideas.

“If Kyle is the visionary force of our firm, our other co-founder, Steve Foley embodied its heart, soul, and attitude,” Osantowski said.

Foley died last August after a nine-month battle with cancer, he said.

“He was a trial lawyer without equal,” Osantowski said. “He was loved and revered by us all — although he could test our sensibilities at times.”

A member of the State Bar of Michigan–Negligence Law Section, the Illinois State Bar Association, The Defense Research Institute and the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel, Osantowski studied science as an undergrad at Michigan State University, before switching to criminal justice in his sophomore year.

He earned his juris doctor from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

“I’ve always been fascinated by every aspect of litigation in general and personal injury litigation in particular,” he said. “What I find most interesting is the investigation and evaluation of the case that many times leads to the discovery of unexpected facts and circumstances. I enjoy product liability law for the same reasons, plus I’ve always enjoyed the sciences and engineering.”

A native of Madison Heights, where his father was a firefighter and his mother worked at Hudson’s in the Oakland Mall, Osantowski now calls Bloomfield Township home.

He and Colleen, his wife of 33 years, have two sons. Kevin, 25, is a second year student at Boston College of Law; Bennett, 22, is completing his senior year at MSU and intends to apply to medical school.

“Both boys have their mother’s good sense,” Osantowski said.

The family enjoys spending time at their cottage in northern Michigan.

“Vacations seem to center around fly fishing destinations, Kevin’s passion,” Osantowski said.  “Bennett regularly beats me in golf.”

A former scout who achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, Osantowski has coached baseball and hockey for the City of Birmingham.

“Participating in team sports and scouting had a tremendous impact on my life,” he said. “It taught me that to achieve lofty goals requires great effort and at times some sacrifice. I also developed leadership skills I rely on to this day.”