The Obit For Eugene Okey

Prominent pioneer in product liability cases dies at 86

CantonRep.com staff writer
Posted Jul 01, 2009 @ 10:10 PM

Eugene P. Okey, a local attorney who was credited with making it easier for individuals to sue companies for injuries and deaths resulting from faulty products, died at his North Canton home early Wednesday.

He was 86.

His son, state Rep. Mark Okey, D-Carrollton, said he died around 8:20 a.m. due to complications from kidney failure. He died in the company of several family members.

“Sure he was my father,” said Okey, 58, a retired attorney. But, “he was my mentor. ... you remember that Apollo 13 movie and that famous line that failure is not an option. That was what my father drove into me.”

Eugene Okey broke legal ground in two precedent-setting cases in the early 1980s: the lawsuit he filed on behalf of two injured clients against the American Motors Corp’s Jeep unit and another suit related to the death of Yankees player Thurman Munson, who was killed in a plane crash in 1979 at the Akron-Canton Airport.

In the first case, he argued successfully before the Ohio Supreme Court that juries could award a significant amount of punitive damages when they found a company liable, Mark Okey said. In the second, Eugene Okey, who represented Munson’s wife, made the novel argument that a company could be held liable for improperly training someone to fly a plane.

“He was on the cutting edge of major cases, particularly in the products field that have since helped thousands of people,” said personal injury attorney Allen Schulman. “He was really a pioneer not only in Stark County but Ohio and the nation.”

Schulman said Eugene Okey lived by the principle that the better-prepared lawyer nearly always won. For the Jeep case, Okey bought a Jeep and crash-tested it. In the Munson case, Okey got his pilot’s license. Schulman said he and Okey once represented the family of a young man who was riding a bicycle when he was struck by a vehicle and critically injured.

“He went to the crash scene over and over again,” Schulman recalled. “We had a couple of reconstruction experts come down. We were there looking at all angles the same time of day.”

Lee Plakas said he was a young attorney around 1981 when he attended the Jeep case trial out of professional interest. In the case, Okey argued that the vehicle, which had rolled over injuring his clients and killing two, had been improperly manufactured and was unable to go up and down hills as depicted in a Jeep commercial. Plakas recalled that Okey had a difficult time convincing Stark County Common Pleas Judge Ira Turpin to admit the videos of the commercials into evidence when that rarely was done. In the end, the judge admitted the tapes, and the jury awarded Okey’s clients $2.2 million, with half of that being in unprecedented punitive damages.

Okey was born in Canton on June 17, 1923, to Francis Okey and Helen Hall. After graduating from Lehman High School in 1941, he played professional baseball and then served as an officer in World War II in North Africa, Europe and Japan. He met his wife, Arlene, who survives, while stationed in Seattle in 1945.

He graduated from Kent State University and served again in the military in Japan and in West Virginia rounding up draft dodgers during the Korean War. Graduating from the William McKinley School of Law in Canton in 1956, he worked as a casualty claims supervisor for the General Adjustment Bureau in Cleveland before selling his house in 1962 and risking all his assets in opening a private law firm in Canton. He retired in 1997 and spent his winters in Clearwater Beach, Fla.

Besides his wife, he leaves behind his two sons Mark and Steve, 47, an Alliance councilman, two daughters Kim Oberholtzer and Karen St. Francis and eight grandchildren.

“It was a privilege to practice law with my dad,” said Steve Okey.