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Jeffrey O'Connell, 1928-2013

Jeffrey O’ConnellJeffrey O’Connell, a pioneer of insurance law reform and a member of the University of Virginia School of Law’s faculty for 32 years, died January 6, at the age of 84.

“By seeing the connection between tort law and insurance law, Jeff O’Connell transformed both and influenced scholars, judges, and legislators,” said Dean Paul G. Mahoney. “He was also a beloved teacher and mentor to generations of Virginia students. We will all miss his intellect, wit, and charm.”

In 1965 O’Connell and Harvard Law School professor Robert Keeton co-authored the landmark book, Basic Protection for the Traffic Victim: A Blueprint for Reforming Automobile Insurance, which envisioned a more efficient system for handling claims that was dubbed “no-fault” insurance.

O’Connell and Keeton—who went on to become a federal judge and died in 2007—lobbied across the country for no-fault insurance laws. At least a dozen states implemented no-fault laws, while several others enacted variations. O’Connell also traveled around the globe to push for the idea, helping to launch the concept in Israel, Australia, and New Zealand.

Later O’Connell fought for decades for similar laws to apply to medical malpractice cases. Most recently, he helped draft the nation’s first “early offer” system for medical malpractice claims, which became law in New Hampshire in 2012. The law established incentives for defendants to make offers early in the litigation process to cover plaintiff’s economic losses, such as for lost wages and medical bills.

Guido Calabresi, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit and preeminent tort scholar, said he “thought the world” of O’Connell.

O’Connell, who graduated from Harvard Law, joined UVA Law in 1980 and taught insurance and torts until his retirement. At the Law School, he was the Samuel H. McCoy II Professor of Law Emeritus.

Prior to joining UVA’s faculty, O’Connell taught at the University of Illinois for 16 years and was a trial lawyer in Boston with the firm of Hale & Dorr.

He also taught at the University of Iowa and was a visiting professor at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, and Oxford and Cambridge universities in England.

In recent years O’Connell helped design an “early offers” plan in which businesses facing personal injury lawsuits could promptly pay injured parties for out-of-pocket medical expenses and lost wages.

Since 1966 O’Connell wrote or co-wrote 12 books dealing with accident law, published dozens of articles on tort and insurance law, and lectured across the United States and around the world. He never stopped pushing for reform, despite opposition from many quarters.

O’Connell is survived by his daughter Mara O’Connell, son Devin O’Connell, sister Jesslyn McNamara, and brother Thomas E. O’Connell. O’Connell coauthored many publications with his brother, who also worked in higher education.

--by Brian McNeill