Joseph Kelner, President of AAJ from 1965-66, died March 4, 2013. He was 98.
Mr. Kelner was dedicated to the practice of trial law and in making a difference in his injured clients’ lives. He served not only as AAJ (formerly ATLA) President, but also as President of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. While President of ATLA, he worked with Senator Robert Kennedy to “Stop Murder by Motor,” an effort to force manufacturers to make cars safer.
Remembered as one of the great trial lawyers of our time, Mr. Kelner was born in Des Moines, Iowa, grew up in Detroit, and went on to graduate from New York University Law School. In New York, he founded the law firm Kelner and Kelner.
Growing up during the depression, Mr. Kelner worked as a young boy, selling clothing in his mother’s store in Detroit. His family’s poverty instilled in him a strong work ethic and the will of a survivor. That survival instinct, combined with his deep understanding of people, an intense intellect, and a wonderful command of the English language, provided him with the tools he needed to become a leading plaintiff lawyer.
After he graduated law school, Mr. Kelner quickly developed his trial lawyer skills. He tried all types of cases until he began to handle only personal injury cases. He wrote a 12 volume work, “Successful Litigation Techniques” published by Matthew Bender. He co-authored the “Trial Practice” column in the New York Law Journal with his son Robert for many years. His columns covered a variety of topics in the field of trial law. The column is now authored by his son Robert and daughter-in-law Gail.
In addition to being a frequent lecturer at bar associations, Mr. Kelner also wrote several articles which were published on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. He was also the Editor-in-Chief of the Trial Lawyers Quarterly.
He won landmark cases in all areas of tort law, including a jury verdict in one of the first brain damaged baby, obstetrical malpractice cases, Gamell v. Mt. Sinai Hospital, and a construction accident case, Harvey v. Mazal American Partners, 79 N.Y.2d 218 (1992). In Miller v. State of New York , 62 N.Y.2d 506 (1984), the Court of Appeals agreed with him that there were circumstances under which the state or a municipality could be held to same duty as private landlords in the maintenance of physical security in a building.
Mr. Kelner was especially impassioned about his role as chief counsel for the students injured and killed in the Kent State shootings in Ohio. His client was the mother of one of the deceased students, Jeffrey Miller, who was depicted in a famous photograph which epitomized the horror of the shootings. It showed Jeffrey’s body on the ground with a woman (Jeffrey’s mother) kneeling over him and crying. Mr. Kelner later co-authored a book called, “The Kent State Coverup” which detailed his experience with the case. The deadly violation of the civil rights of the dead and injured students stayed with him throughout his life.
Mr. Kelner always remained true to his core beliefs. He had a radio program on the law in the 1960s. When he wanted to do a program on the constitutionality of the war in Vietnam, he was given an order to either withdraw the program or resign from the show. He resigned from the show.
He always fought for the rights of victims. He loved the jury system and always fought against efforts to restrict it.
Mr. Kelner is survived by his son Robert S. Kelner, now the senior partner in Kelner and Kelner, and his son Dr. Kenneth Kelner of New York City. He is also survived by his two grandchildren, Joshua and Jonathan, both sons of Robert Kelner. Joshua is an attorney with Kelner and Kelner and Jonathan is a professor of applied mathematics and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also survived by his daughter-in-law Gail S. Kelner, an attorney with Kelner and Kelner.