Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bumped into Phil Corboy the other day...

    Attended the Chicago Bar Association Christmas show Thursday night. I almost passed on it; I'm a homebody. But I couldn't very well mock the mayor for not going and then skip out on it myself. There's enough hypocrisy going around without me adding a cupful to the ocean.
    I'm glad I went. The show was boisterous fun. My favorite song was an ode to personal injury litigation, "Duty and the Breach" sung to "Beauty and the Beast." 
     It seemed apt, since the reception beforehand was held on the second floor of the CBA headquarters , in Philip H. Corboy Hall, under the watchful gaze of a big oil painting of the great Chicago litigator. He passed away five years ago, and it was good to see him again. I went over to say hello.
     It's always a little odd to see guys I knew lionized in semi-permanent form: the bust of Jack Brickhouse in Pioneer Court, or Kup gesturing—with what I hope is contempt—at Trump Tower, squatting on his former home. 
     I got to know Corboy a little—he was a good man, proud of his family and his profession, helpful when I had a question about the law, even more helpful when I got in trouble with the law myself. Not every friend of mine stood up; he did. We first met when, researching something else, I noticed his first case, and wrote the column below:

     Two men, friends since childhood, got in a drunken fight, picked up pistols and killed each other. Their life insurance policies had clauses denying payment if death was caused while committing a felony.
     The widows turned to a young lawyer, Philip H. Corboy, for help. Corboy convinced a jury that the men were too drunk to have the intent needed to commit a felony.
     That was Nov. 11, 1950—50 years ago next Saturday—the first rung in what has been a climb to the legal summit: Corboy is the most visible lawyer in Chicago and among the most successful personal injury trial attorneys in the country.
     I sat down with Corboy last week in his 21st floor Dearborn Street office. I wanted a glimpse of what a man learns after 50 years of representing the most grievously injured people involved in the most heartbreaking cases, and extracting compensation out of corporate America.
     Sitting at his antique, four-sided English partner's desk, with a splendid panoramic skyline behind him, Corboy radiated success, confidence and energy. I couldn't help but be struck by how tremendously handsome he is; surprisingly so for a man in his mid-70s, with pale blue eyes and pure white hair. He looks like Kirk Douglas and has an actor's eloquence, honed by a half century of arguing before judges.
     "I have never calculated the number of cases I've tried to a jury," he said. "I've 'tried' thousands of cases where the case gets ready for trial, you have a jury in the box, you spend four days trying the case, it gets settled. Ninety percent of these cases get settled."
     In part, no doubt, out of respect for Corboy's track record. Many people are under the impression that Corboy has never lost a case. That is not true. He ended up losing that first case—the judge threw out the jury's verdict. And he lost a case in 1985, though it was reinstated on appeal and his client ended up with $1.35 million.
     But that's about it. This near-perfect track record has lent Corboy's 24-lawyer firm a certain air of invulnerability. The firm of Corboy & Demetrio turns away 19 out of 20 cases, so when he represents a client—such as the family of the woman who was killed when a pane of glass fell from the CNA Building—it is a sign of the unfairness of the tragedy and reliable foreshadowing that some deep pocket is going to be turned inside out.
     "There is no segment of the citizenry population I have not represented," Corboy said. "I've represented prostitutes. I've represented monsignors in the Catholic Church. I've represented ministers. I've represented rabbis. I've represented housewives. I've represented convicted felons."
     While certain professions scream at the cost of litigation—doctors, pundits, politicians— Corboy pointed out that when a tragedy happens to them, sudden changes of heart frequently occur.
     "We represent many, many doctors who sue other doctors," said Corboy. "When a newspaperman is hurt, he comes to us. We get politicians who have voted for tort reform who send us their children who have been hurt."
     Despite the speed at which people rush to law to address their problems—or perhaps because of it—lawyers are generally held in low regard, and personal injury lawyers receive particular scorn. It doesn't bother Corboy at all.
     "Lawyers in my type of work are quite secure they are doing the right thing," he said. "When you watch movies, with tension between the local police and the FBI, how does the FBI come off? Interferers? Dolts? Do you think the secure FBI man cares?"
     In his time he has seen law change, he says, for the worse, a "crankiness" born out of the practice of winning cases not in courtrooms, but by drowning your opponent in a roomful of documents.
     "Corporate America," Corboy said, "insurance America, medical America, are in the . . ."—here he chooses his words carefully— ". . . business of properly protecting their clients with devices that are meant to precipitate the generation of paper."
     He has been involved in many important cases; his firm represented the families of six of the seven victims of the Tylenol poisonings. Perhaps Corboy's most influential case came in 1965, when he represented the owner of a race horse killed in a freak accident at Arlington Park.
     Corboy won a $93,708.33 judgment for the worth of the horse, which was ironic because at the time in Illinois there was a cap on the wrongful death of human beings of $30,000.
     "If it was the jockey who was killed instead of the horse, his widow could have only collected $30,000," said Corboy, whose testimony in Springfield did much to remove such artificial caps.
     We spoke for two hours. The problem with a subject like Corboy is that one barely scratches the surface, and then it is time to stop.

            —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 5, 2000



  1. He made a compelling case for personal injury lawyers, but the fact that his firm turned away 19 of 20 cases suggests something other than an even handed application of justice. More like cherry picking to keep a high success rate.

    About doctors suing other doctors, it must indeed be something that happens, but, generalizing from a small sample, I'm inclined to believe it's fair to say that all doctors hate all lawyers. Except possibly the ones defending them in malpractice cases.

    Excepting "To Kill a Mockingbirds," literature affords little comfort to the legal profession, from Dick the Butcher in Henry VI proclaiming that after the revolution "The first thing we do, lets kill all the lawyers" onward. The most damning instance of courtroom torture and lawyerly cupidity is perhaps Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the inter generational contested inheritance in "Bleak House," which ends only when all the estate's assets have been consumed by legal fees.


  2. I interpret the photo as Kup gesturing toward the name as he's about about to say, "Take this incompetent, traitorous asshole, for instance..."

    I'm of two minds about personal injury law. On one hand, I marvel at folks who begrudge people like themselves being awarded $2,000,000 because of a big company's negligence, siding with the perspective of the big company. Though I suppose they're at least consistent when they're the same ones who are happy to see taxes on the wealthy lowered, at their own expense, because they figure "someday *I'll* be rich," or "if *I* were rich, I wouldn't want to pay 40% in taxes," or whatever.

    On the other hand, some cases make me wonder if there's no such thing as a simple, unforeseeable "accident," which doesn't involve somebody having to be blamed and liable.

    Regardless, nice column and photos.

    Uh oh, I just noticed the new guideline regarding the posting of comments. Alas, this comment is likely both mean and crazy...

    1. I'm not sure it's a new guideline. I just noticed the box and thought I'd write something and see how it felt. In truth, the only standard for comments here is that they must not be written by one particular reader, whose comments are trashed, unread, because he has lost the right to comment through constant malice and harassment. If he were not sending me dozens of emails a day and trying to comment here incessantly, I wouldn't need to filter comments at all.

    2. well there is that one other, mean, crazy commenter. how soon we forget

    3. There is? Doesn't come to mind. Not even on the scale.

  3. One of the most diabolically clever rhetorical tricks of the Republicans was to exploit (if not create) people's disdain for trial lawyers to build support for so-called "tort reform," which basically is just a way of depriving citizens of their legal rights.

    I wondered if the comments approval policy was due to unhinged commenters. Glad to see it's only one.

  4. While looking at your photo of Kup's statue, what occurred to me was Sic transit gloria mundi and not because I'm a scholar. Simply put, the glory of the world does pass. There may be a statue of him but I doubt that many in Chicago remember him or his contribution today. In a few generations, I suspect that the statue will disappear altogether to be replaced by one of someone else. And so, it's incumbent upon us to do the right and kind thing today regardless of whether anyone will remember it or not.


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