Vann Owens, a former Hamilton County judge, family man and respected lawyer who once asked the pilot of a plane he was in to turn off the engine to help him defend a case, died Tuesday of natural causes. He was 86.
Born in 1931, Owens grew up in Chattanooga, went to City High School and received an engineering degree from Auburn University, friends and colleagues said. Then he decided he wanted to become a lawyer.
"I never asked him why," said Tom Williams, an attorney who practiced with Owens for years. But his curiosity seemed to suit the profession.
Doing insurance work for a local firm, Owens had to defend a plane manufacturer after local TV newscaster and congressional candidate Mort Lloyd was killed when he crashed his plane on Aug. 20, 1974. According to news accounts, a blade broke loose and threw the engine off balance.
"[Owens] got up in a plane and voluntarily let them cut the engines off just to see what would happen," Williams said Wednesday. "I don't think anybody else would do that."
After many years of insurance defense work, Owens was elected to Hamilton County Chancery Court in 1984. He spent the next decade overseeing estate and property disputes, always delivering fair opinions, colleagues said.
"He went from our firm and was elected chancellor and served for many years," said attorney Gary Napolitan, a member of Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan PLLC. "He was sometimes harder on us than other people, because he bent over backwards to be fair."
One of Owens' sons, Bruce Owens, a judge in Hamilton County's Juvenile Court, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
But colleagues said Vann Owens loved college football and road tripped to games when time allowed. He was married for 56 years to Janice Owens, who died in 2009. They had four children together.
In later years, Owens served on Erlanger hospital's board of trustees, a responsibility he took seriously, colleagues said.
News accounts show Owens questioned whether conflicts of interest were affecting Erlanger's contracts with physicians and its care for patients in the early 2000s. Erlanger eventually agreed to pay $40 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to settle an ongoing investigation into the hospital's compliance with kickback and fraud laws. Erlanger admitted no fault in the agreement.
"He took his service there very seriously and did a masterful job," said attorney Russell King, who worked on cases with Owens. "I just can't say enough good things about Vann Owens."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.