Insurance Law

Bridge Of Spies: Tom Hanks As James B. Donovan - The Most Interesting Coverage Lawyer In the World

Donovan's Children Share With Me Memories Of Their Father And Seeing His Life On The Biggest Screen In The World

“I’m an insurance lawyer.” The first time I heard it, it didn’t really register. The television was on in the kitchen but I wasn’t watching. It was very early in the morning and I was hurriedly doing a host of things before leaving the house. The focus of my attention was on making the train. I can even recall thinking that I probably misheard whatever it was.

But it was a much different story the next morning. This time I was sitting in front of the television. “I’m an insurance lawyer.” Now there was no doubt what I was hearing. Tom Hanks was identifying himself as an insurance lawyer in a commercial for an upcoming Steven Spielberg film. I had to lift my chin out of my Cheerios

The movie in question is Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer who defends an accused Soviet spy in the late 1950s. After his client is found guilty, Hanks’s character goes cloak and dagger and attempts to arrange for him to be swapped for the return of an American spy pilot being held by the Soviets. The tense prisoner exchange takes place on a bridge in Berlin.

But why did they make Hanks an insurance lawyer? Of all the many kinds of lawyers that his character could have been…an insurance lawyer? Come on. It makes no sense. I’m an insurance lawyer and I wouldn’t know how to defend someone for jaywalking. And here is Tom Hanks, insurance lawyer, representing someone possibly facing the death penalty for espionage. I’ve spent years exaggerating how exciting insurance lawyers are – and even I’d never take it this far.

But there is a very simple explanation for all of this. Bridge of Spies is based on a true story. Tom Hanks plays James Britt Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer (to be more specific, property/casualty coverage lawyer) who, at the height of the Cold War, at the request of the Brooklyn Bar Association, represented Soviet spy Rudolf Abel against espionage charges. He even argued Abel’s appeal before the United States Supreme Court. Donovan was later directly involved in negotiating the swap of the KGB Abel, for U.S. spy pilot Francis Gary Powers, which took place on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin on a frozen Saturday morning in February 1962. The Abel trial and subsequent prisoner exchange were both front page national news.

The Abel trial took place in 1957. A year earlier Donovan argued a “number of occurrences” case before the Supreme Court of Washington. Really. I’m not making this up. I couldn’t. (See Truck Insurance Exchange v. Rohde, 303 P.2d 659 (Wash. 1956)), [subscribers can access an enhanced version of this opinion: | Lexis Advance].

Since learning that an insurance (um, coverage) lawyer had done something so breathtakingly unique I have had a insatiable appetite to learn more about James B. Donovan. On one hand, the information is out there. The Abel trial and Powers swap are chronicled, in great detail, in Donovan’s own words in his fantastic 1964 book Strangers on a Bridge (recently re-released by Simon & Schuster). In addition, a biography of Donovan has been published as well as a collection of his speeches.

But my main interest is James Donovan--the insurance coverage lawyer. And, as you can imagine, the great majority of what’s been written about Donovan’s life does not go down that road. So for help I sent an inquiry to the email address listed on a website that chronicles Donovan’s life ( In return I received a wonderful note from Beth Amorosi, Donovan’s granddaughter, who runs the informative website, and was more than happy to assist me. Beth provided me with background material concerning the insurance aspect of her grandfather’s career that I could have never found easily. In addition, she generously arranged for me to interview all three of Donovan’s living children. These were three phone calls I won’t soon forget.

James B. Donovan: The Role Made For Tom Hanks

If all James Donovan had done in his career was to be a highly accomplished insurance lawyer, represent notorious spy Rudolf Abel and negotiate his release for an American spy pilot, he would unquestionably get the award for most interesting coverage lawyer in the world. Except those are just a couple of items on his remarkable resume. Here is how Donovan’s life is described by Beth, his granddaughter, on her website.

Born in New York City in 1916, James B. Donovan graduated from Fordham University and Harvard Law School. A commander in the Navy during World War II, he became General Counsel of the Office of Strategic Services and was Associate Prosecutor at the principal Nuremberg trial. [I learned that he was responsible for the powerful visual evidence.]

Mr. Donovan subsequently acted as chief counsel in major trials and appeals in over thirty states, and was an insurance lawyer and partner at Watters and Donovan. He was defense counsel to Colonel Rudolf Abel, subsequently negotiating for his exchange with American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. He was Democratic candidate for United States Senator from New York in 1962; served as General Counsel for the Cuban Families Committee, obtaining the release of more than 9,700 Cubans and Americans from Castro’s Cuba; was President of Pratt Institute; and was President of the Board of Education of the City of New York. He died in 1970, and was survived by his wife and four children.

As I see it, Tom Hanks was perfectly cast for the role of James B. Donovan. After all, Donovan’s life resembles that of Forrest Gump.

James B. Donovan: Insurance Lawyer

Beth Amorosi provided me with a copy of the July-August 1962 issue of the Journal of Insurance Information featuring her grandfather on the cover. It includes a profile of Donovan’s life as an insurance lawyer. Basically it’s the article I am trying to write here – except I was scooped by 53 years. I don’t know who wrote this wonderful piece except that his or her initials are E.G.D. I wish I did so that I could say thank you (if possible) for all of the borrowing of information that I am about to do. [Figuring out who E.G.D. is, is on my to-do list. It should be pretty easy.]

According to the JII article, in 1946 or so, following his involvement with Office of Strategic Services and the Nuremberg trial, the 30 year old Donovan became general counsel of the National Bureau of Casualty Underwriters. But the road to that office dates back to Donovan’s WWII days, where he developed a top-secret disability and life insurance program for civilian scientists who were taking great risks in research.

The JII article describes the project like this: “All Donovan had to do was to find U. S. insurers willing to underwrite a hazard they could know nothing about, on insureds whose names and precise jobs they could not be told, at rates which could not be based on experience. On top of this, the companies had to agree to pay claims they could not even investigate!” But Donovan pulled it off, using a syndicate of insurance, and the companies even made a small profit.

Having joined the National Bureau of Casualty Underwriters right when Congress had passed the McCarran-Ferguson Act, Donovan was directly involved in the state vs. federal fight over insurance regulation. He even litigated the issue in the Eighth Circuit where he was successful and cert. was denied by the Supreme Court.

In 1950 Donovan joined with Thomas Watters, Jr., a former deputy insurance commissioner of Iowa (played by Alan Alda in the film), to form the law firm Watters & Donovan in New York and Washington. The firm’s clients included numerous large insurance companies. During his career, Donovan served as Chair of the Insurance section of the ABA.

Following Donovan’s death in 1970, the Watters & Donovan firm went through various successions and, in 2002, became Donovan Parry McDermott & Radzik. The firm’s Dan McDermott, renowned maritime and maritime insurance lawyer, now with Marshall Dennehey in New York, recently published a moving tribute to Donovan in The National Law Journal (Oct. 19). I spoke to McDermott and he was happy to share some stories with me. While he never met Donovan, the former insurance lawyer is a daily presence in McDermott’s life. McDermott sent me a picture of his office featuring some courtroom sketches from the Abel trial.

While not a lot has been written about Donovan’s career as an insurance lawyer, I learned much from a review of his insurance cases. There are a lot to read. I can only mention a few here.

In the Rohde case mentioned above (Wash. 1956), Donovan successfully represented insurers, as amici curiae, in establishing that a single occurrence limit applied, under an automobile policy, where an insured vehicle struck three motorcycles in quick succession.

In Morton v. Maryland Casualty Co., 151 N.E.2d 881 (N.Y. 1958), [subscribers can access an enhanced version of this opinion: | Lexis Advance], Donovan, representing insurers as amici curiae, was on the winning side of the New York high court’s decision that an underlying plaintiff could not bring suit in New York, pursuant to Louisiana’s direct action statute.

In Aetna Casualty and Surety Co. v. General Casualty Co., 140 N.Y.S.2d 670 (N.Y.A.D. 1955), [subscribers can access an enhanced version of this opinion: | Lexis Advance], Donovan, again as amici curiae, was unsuccessful in arguing that no coverage was owed under an auto policy, to a permissive user, for injuries sustained by the named insured when he was a passenger in his own vehicle, being driven by the permissive user.

In Weissblum v. Glens Falls Insurance Company, 244 N.Y.S. 2d 689 (N.Y.A.D. 1963), [subscribers can access an enhanced version of this opinion: | Lexis Advance], Donovan convinced the New York Appellate Division that an insurer was not liable for coverage, for 189 damaged windows, because the insured did not establish that he was “legally obligated to pay” for such damage. The insured only established that he was obligated because of a contractual assumption of liability, which was excluded under the policy.

There is no denying Donovan’s bone fides as a coverage lawyer. He was no dabbler. This makes it all that much more remarkable that, from 1957 to 1962, he was involved in the Abel case and spy swap.

Incidentally, the Abel case no doubt kept Donovan away from his private insurance practice for long periods of time. Yet, for all those years of working on it, he received the paltry sum of $10,000. And Donovan donated all of it to charity.

James B. Donovan: Conversations With His Children

I am so grateful to Beth Amorosi for arranging for me to speak with her mother, Jan Donovan Amorosi, age 71, in New York City, as well as James Donovan’s other two children, John Donovan, 69, in Norwalk, Connecticut and Mary Ellen Fuller, 65, in Alcolu, South Carolina. Beth arranged back to back to back phone calls for me with her mother, uncle and aunt. I’ve never had three phone calls in a row with my own relatives.

Donovan’s children could not have been kinder to me or more generous with their answers to my questions. They were not on the phone to talk about themselves, but, of course, I had to ask whether certain things in the film, about their characters, were real or fictionalized. For a Curious George-type like myself that’s just too tempting to pass up.

Donovan’s children attended the Bridge of Spies New York opening at Lincoln Center and had the chance to spend time with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Mary Ellen recounted that Spielberg commented how much he enjoyed the opportunity to meet a character’s family – something that doesn’t always come up – with Spielberg pointing out that his last film was Lincoln.

When one’s father’s life is portrayed by Tom Hanks, the first question that has to be asked is the most obvious – well, how did he do? Each one of Donovan’s children had a similar response. They didn’t say simple things like -- Hanks did well or Hanks really got it right. Instead they judged Hanks’s performance very high by the emotional responses that it brought out in them. For Mary Ellen, seeing Hanks as her father made her realize just how much she missed him. Jan was brought to tears by how harshly Hanks was treated during his time in Berlin putting together the spy swap. John praised Hanks for, in addition to bringing out the feeling of missing his father, pulling off his father’s “steadfastness” “leavened by occasional wit.”

Mary Ellen told me that, seeing her father finally being recognized, for the important things that he had done in his life, has been very emotional for her. And that gets to the heart of what’s so amazing about Bridge of Spies. It’s not just the story of James Donovan. It’s his story being told on the biggest of all screens in the world -- Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks. This isn’t some documentary being screened at an indy film festival.

As the oldest of the three children I asked Jan for her most vivid memory of the Abel case. She recounted the thrill of traveling to Washington to attend the oral argument in Abel’s appeal before the United States Supreme Court. She also recalled being in a cab with her father, a week before he traveled to Berlin, and sensing an excitement in him. She can remember seeing him rubbing his palms together – something he did when he was looking forward to something. The real purpose of her father’s upcoming trip to Europe had not been revealed to his family (a cover story was used); so only later did she suspect knowing the reason for his excitement in that cab.

John also had tremendous memories of his father and the Abel case. Incredibly, in June 1956, at age eleven, he was present in the Washington Supreme Court, in Olympia, when his father argued “number of occurrences” in Truck Insurance Exchange v. Rohde. His vivid memories of the case were remarkable. John also had the unique experiences of being with his father on visits to Abel in prison as well as to Cuba and meeting Castro. He recalled Abel being not much different from how he was superbly under-played by Mark Rylance in the film. On one prison visit to Abel, John sang him a ditty that the family had written: “Rudolf Ivanovich Abel” sung to the tune of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

The screenplay for Bridge of Spies was written by Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen. [My sense is that Charman did the heavy-lifting.] John had a breakfast meeting with Charman when he was writing the script. Charman was a good listener. John read me an email that he had just received from the writer -- thanking him for bringing his father alive.

That James Donovan died at age 53, of a heart attack, is staggering – both for its sadness and remarkableness that he did so much in such a short period. I asked John Donovan what else might his father have accomplished if his life had not been cut so short. He speculated that it may have been related to education, having been President of the New York City Board of Education and Pratt Institute. John dismissed the possibility of politics -- as he didn’t think his father was too upset about losing the race for a United States Senate seat.

When you watch Bridge of Spies it is so easy to compare Tom Hanks to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both played lawyers who zealously represented unpopular clients and were subject to public scorn for doing so. Mary Ellen told me that MGM obtained the rights to Donovan’s book, Strangers on a Bridge. But for whatever reason the film never came to pass. James Donovan was going to be played by Gregory Peck.

Coverage Opinions is a bi-weekly (or more frequently) electronic newsletter reporting or providing commentary on just-issued decisions from courts nationally addressing insurance coverage disputes. Coverage Opinions focuses on decisions that concern numerous issues under commercial general liability and professional liability insurance policies. For more information visit

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of his firm or its clients. The information contained herein shall not be considered legal advice. You are advised to consult with an attorney concerning how any of the issues addressed herein may apply to your own situation. Coverage Opinions is gluten free but may contain peanut products.

    Randy Maniloff is Counsel at White and Williams, LLP in Philadelphia. He previously served as a firm Partner for seven years and transitioned to a Counsel position to pursue certain writing projects including Coverage Opinions . Nonetheless he still maintains a full-time practice at the firm. Randy concentrates his practice in the representation of insurers in coverage disputes over primary and excess obligations under a host of policies, including commercial general liability and various professional liability policies, such as public official’s, law enforcement, educator’s, media, computer technology, architects and engineers, lawyers, real estate agents, community associations, environmental contractors, Indian tribes and several others. Randy has significant experience in coverage for environmental damage and toxic torts, liquor liability and construction defect, including additional insured and contractual indemnity issues. Randy is co-author of “General Liability Insurance Coverage - Key Issues In Every State” (Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2012). For the past twelve years Randy has published a year-end article that addresses the ten most significant insurance coverage decisions of the year completed.

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