BY BEN L. KAUFMAN
The $50 million victory for victims and survivors of the fire elevated the attorney to ''the prince of torts,'' the ''master of disaster.''
Critics thought him mad to take the Beverly Hills case and ghoulish when he sought evidence in smoldering ruins.
''Nobody would have had the chutzpah to do what he did,'' said Bruce Allman, who was among attorneys battling Mr. Chesley in the Beverly Hills case.
Such brashness made him wealthy and compensated victims' families and survivors more richly than otherwise possible.
''Chesley is definitely a pioneer,'' said Linda Mullenix, professor of law at the University of Texas and author of Mass Tort Litigation Cases and Materials.
Less flamboyant lawyers also found Beverly Hills pivotal, whether like Louis F. Gilligan, they won national reputations as plaintiffs' advocates, or like Mr. Allman, they enjoy a reputation as a defense attorney to call when lawyers like Messrs. Chesley and Gilligan sue.
None, however, has captured public attention like Mr. Chesley, who concedes he was only ''a pretty fair trial lawyer'' and ''an unknown quantity'' before the fire.
Mr. Chesley wasn't unduly modest, added William O. Bertelsman, who was co-counsel on Beverly Hills until he became a federal judge. ''He was unknown.''
That, however, was no sin in 1977, cautioned Jacob Stein, who spent decades defending people sued by Mr. Chesley. ''The days when personal injury lawyers were big shots had not arrived.''
Beverly Hills changed that, too.
Now, Mr. Chesley is one of a small number of attorneys who represent plaintiffs in mass tort (mass injury) litigation, from fires, airline crashes and and contamination from the former Fernald uranium processing plant to claims that silicon breast implants and cigarettes killed smokers.
He also contributes generously to charities, the University of Cincinnati and Democrats, and rides on Air Force One.
Fees from Beverly Hills settlements allowed Mr. Chesley to pursue other suits.
This financial strength puts Mr. Chesley at the center of any case he enters, noted another frequent opponent, physician-lawyer Frank Woodside III. ''I call it the Golden Rule,'' Dr. Woodside said. ''He who has the gold rules.''
Previous fees also cushioned losses when Mr. Chesley failed to negotiate settlements or win jury verdicts in complex cases that ate up years of lawyers' time and expenses for his firm.