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A 1972 graduate of the Vanderbilt University School of Law, Mark, who is also a student pilot, spent the first 27 years of his legal career in the Minneapolis offices of the law firm Meagher & Geer doing insurance defense work including product liability cases and medical malpractice.
He gained the respect of his peers and even his opposing counsel for the quality of his legal work.
“It was hard to get mad at him, but he frustrated the hell out of me,” said Dick Hunegs, a plaintiff’s attorney in the Twin Cities for more than 60 years. “I’m old-fashioned. It was a much different environment, but you gained respect for one another.’’
During Mark’s early years he represented clients like NSP in the Commodore Hotel explosion in St. Paul and TWA in a case involving a Boeing 727 flight between New York and Minneapolis that suffered a severe mechanical malfunction and plummeted nearly 35,000 feet in 44 seconds before the flight crew could regain control of the jetliner.
“Boeing wanted to blame the crew, but these guys were able to defend themselves and never changed their story,” Mark said. “I believed in them.”
There were no fatalities in the near-disaster but a number of passengers suffered injuries, and a subsequent trial in Hennepin County District Court found that TWA was 70 percent liable for the crash while Boeing was 30 percent liable. Damage settlements to the passengers averaged about $30,000, with the highest at $250,000.
In 1982, Mark was summoned to a hangar at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport where he met with 13 ex-Braniff employees — 11 pilots and two flight attendants — who had leased a 727 aircraft and wanted to start an airline. Mark took the proposition to a colleague at Meagher & Geer, Robert Fafinski, who was better versed in business law. They completed the necessary legal work to put Sun Country Airlines in business. Today, Fafinski sits on the Sun Country board of directors.
In 1999, Mark, Fafinski and Kevin Johnson went out on their own. Today their firm has 27 attorneys and a staff of 21 employees. Its conference rooms at the Eden Prairie headquarters are named after such famous aviators as Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.
But the clientele extends well beyond the wild blue yonder.
‘I can pick and choose’
In recent years, Mark has represented former Vikings place-kicker Gary Anderson in contract negotiations with other NFL teams.
In 2010, Mark won a $1 million settlement on behalf of Jimmy Williams, a would-be Minnesota Gophers assistant basketball coach whose hiring by head coach Tubby Smith was overturned by higher-ups in the university’s administration. (The award was overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court last year.)
Mark also has a discrimination lawsuit pending on behalf of former University of Minnesota women’s golf coach Katie Brenny, who claims she lost her job because of her sexual orientation. That case is set for trial in November.
“I’m at a point where I don’t have to take every case. I can pick and choose what I want to take to trial,” Mark said. “I have the opportunity to try interesting cases and meet interesting people.”
His cluttered office reflects Mark’s take on his career. The walls are laden with photos of Mark with clients, plus framed magazine covers of athletes he’s represented and no shortage of model airplanes and metal debris that once were pieces of evidence in cases gone by.
“Don is a trial lawyer’s lawyer,” Fafinski says of Mark. “He’s a master strategist. If he can’t envision the final argument in a case, he won’t take it.”
David Phelps • 612-673-7269