When faced with a multimillion-dollar trial, negative banner headlines, and a sympathetic plaintiff, the Detroit auto industry invariably turns to Dykema attorney James Feeney, one of the country’s most prominent high-stakes litigators. Looking at his success rate over a 37-year legal career, it’s no wonder, because the University of Michigan graduate has successfully represented the Detroit Three automakers in numerous product liability and contractual lawsuits.
Feeney’s most impressive victory came four years ago in a landmark $800-million class-action case in the defense of Ford for alleged safety issues surrounding the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor cruiser. Although Feeney squared off against nationally renowned plaintiff’s attorney David Perry in St. Clair County, Ill. (a jurisdiction known for giving some of the largest plaintiff’s verdicts in the country), Feeney’s team won a defense jury verdict — after a five-week trial — in less than two hours.
“I don’t think there was another case more significant in terms of importance to the company and, as far as I know, it was the first automotive class-action tried to verdict,” Feeney says. “I’m very proud of that case for a lot of reasons, but, for one, police officers absolutely love that vehicle.”
As an 8-year-old boy, Feeney was often glued to his family’s black-and-white TV watching Perry Mason, dreaming of someday becoming an attorney himself. “I simply relish the competition of trial work and the challenges it brings,” he says.
When asked about his key to success at trial, Feeney, 61, doesn’t bat an eye. “Besides having good support people, you can’t be a hand-wringer,” he says. “And you must have absolute command of the facts. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to think on your feet, and that’s probably my best ability.”
Feeney’s trial skills were put to the test live on Court TV in 1999, when he faced Geoffrey Fieger in the highly publicized “Jenny Jones” case. Although Feeney, representing Time Warner Inc., lost at trial, he successfully persuaded the Michigan Court of Appeals to set aside the $25-million dollar jury verdict.