Tom Davis, “Dean of Aviation Law”

Not many of us are fortunate enough to find a single defining passion in life, but for Tom Davis, his love of flying and love of the law came together to define his life’s work – a career in aviation law that spanned decades and took him to the very top of a highly demanding field.

Davis first learned to fly in the Navy, at the end of World War II. After three years of service, he returned home to Austin and the University of Texas, where he earned a law degree. He was admitted to the Bar in 1949 and served as a Briefing Attorney for the Supreme Court of Texas from 1950-51. But when the country entered the Korean conflict, he was recalled to active duty as a Marine pilot. From 1952 to 1953, he flew 103 missions in a combat fighter plane, a Grumman F9F Panther jet. In recognition of his heroics, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and 10 Air Medals.

A Pilot’s Perspective
After the war, Davis again returned to Austin. In 1953, he began practicing personal injury law with Ralph W. Yarborough. (Yarborough remained a lifelong friend until his death in 1996.) After Yarborough’s election to the U.S. Senate, Davis co-founded the Austin firm of Byrd & Davis in 1959. He served as managing partner at that firm until leaving to start Slack Davis Sanger in 1993.

In the early ’60s, Davis took his first air crash case and found his true calling. By the early ’70s, he was specializing exclusively in air crash litigation and related insurance coverage disputes.

Davis continued to fly for business and pleasure, and he found that his piloting greatly benefited his skills as an aviation lawyer. His first-hand knowledge of aircraft and his pilot’s perspective led him to critical insights about why accidents occurred – insights that proved key to establishing causation and liability in a lawsuit. The fact that he took to the skies himself also gave him a special passion for improving aviation safety, by pursuing those responsible for aviation deaths and unsafe aircraft and conditions.

A Nationally Respected Leader
In recognition of his stature, Davis was elected to leadership positions in the profession. He chaired the Aviation and Space Law Committee of the American Bar Association from 1983-84. He was Director of the State Bar of Texas in 1967-70, and was Chairman of the Aviation Section in 1993-94. He served as president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (1977-78) and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association (1962-63). He was Chair of ATLA’s Aviation Law Section (1968-70). He also was elected to the International Society of Air Safety Investigators and served on the Supreme Court of Texas Advisory Committee (1970-82 and 1988-93). In recognition of his skills and experience as an appellate lawyer, he frequently was asked to appear as amicus curiae in cases involving important tort and insurance law questions. And in 2003, Davis received the “Distinguished Lawyer” award from the Travis County Bar Association at the annual Law Day luncheon.

High Profile Cases
Over the course of his aviation practice, Davis handled cases involving commercial airliner, air charter, commuter, and other aviation crashes. He represented the families of passengers in major air disasters such as the United 581 crash at Colorado Springs, Colo.; the Delta 191 crash at Dallas-Fort Worth airport; the Braniff Electra crash at Dawson, Texas; and the Piedmont mid-air collision in Ashville, North Carolina. Some of his most notable cases include the crashes that killed entertainers Jim Croce, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and three members of Reba McEntire’s band. In addition, he assisted Michael Slack on a case arising out of the death of musician Walter Hyatt in the crash of ValuJet 592.

Although Davis died on August 2, 2005, he remains the visionary pioneer who inspires the Slack Davis Sanger team.