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ICON Awards 2022: Craig O’Dear, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner

Craig O’DearOne might say that Craig O’Dear began engineering his career at a young age, starting at Highland High School in Lewistown, where he was a three-sport athlete.

“Football paid for my college education,” he said. “I received a scholarship to what is now called the Missouri University of Science and Technology, which has the oldest engineering program west of the Mississippi.”

While becoming a trial lawyer was O’Dear’s ultimate goal, he believed an engineering degree would leave him well-equipped with analytical skills that would serve him well in his legal career, and he reckoned that if law didn’t work out, he could make a good living as an engineer.

After graduating, he was accepted as a Patrick Wilson Scholar at Vanderbilt Law School where he completed his law degree in 1982 and began his career in commercial and product liability defense.

In 1988, O’Dear, along with a colleague, opened the Kansas City office for Bryan Cave. As the hiring leader, he was instrumental in growing it into one of the premier law firms in Kansas City.

At 65, O’Dear looks back on his career and still marvels at one of his most high-profile cases, representing the World Wrestling Federation in litigation arising out of the death of wrestler Owen Hart during a performance at Kemper Arena. It is also a matter in which his engineering degree paid off.

He describes the failed stunt that sparked the lawsuit.

“Owen Hart was to enter the ring from the top rafters of the arena, lowered by a rope connected to a scrum vest with a piece of hardware called a trigger latch shackle,” O’Dear recalled. “The latch failed, and he fell nearly 80 feet into the rink and was killed instantly.”

Hart’s family sued the WWF for negligence and the suit went to trial. As part of his defense strategy, O’Dear set out to prove the latch was defective, putting the manufacturer at fault. He rigged a tall a-frame ladder with 240-pound weights attached to a cable with the same trigger latch and shackle involved in the accident.

“As the weights hung from the ladder, I tapped the trigger latch with a plastic pen, and it opened, releasing the weights onto a thick plywood base I had constructed underneath it,” he said. “The jurors nearly jumped out of the jury box.”

Three weeks into the trial, the case settled for $18 million. The latch equipment manufacturer made a $9 million contribution payment.

About 15 years ago, O’Dear began revealing a secret he had harbored most of his life. He has a nearly debilitating fear of public speaking.

“Most people still don’t believe it when I tell them,” he said. “In fact, the desire to overcome that fear is one of the reasons I became a trial lawyer.”

ICON Awards 2022