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Philip Corboy, dead at 87, dean of personal injury lawyers

 Philip Corboy

Philip Corboy

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Updated: July 14, 2012 6:23AM

He was The Dean, a nationally renowned pioneer in personal injury law, a hero to his clients, for whom he won big awards from big companies, and nemesis to corporations that didn’t like being hauled into court.

Philip H. Corboy used to joke that people would remember him most for the hard time they would have each time they tried opening of the tamper-proof lids that his lawsuits prompted drug companies to put on bottles of pain reliever.

Mr. Corboy, 87, died at 3 a.m. Tuesday after suffering a stroke and seizures, said his wife, Mary Dempsey, Chicago’s former library commissioner. She said he was surrounded by his family at his home in the Water Tower Place Condominiums.

His funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Holy Name Cathedral.

“He had a beautiful life,” Dempsey said. “He was one of the most optimistic people I ever had the pleasure to meet. He cared deeply about people.

“He wanted to give his clients the absolute highest level of care. He loved his family. And he loved his friends.”

Mr. Corboy continued practicing law into his early 80s.

“Chicago has truly lost one of its most outstanding citizens and a giant in the legal community,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “Most of all, he will be remembered the example he set in ensuring that those who had been victims of injury and injustice would have their voices heard.”

Gov. Quinn added, “Philip Corboy was more than an attorney; he was an advocate for everyday people ... His commitment to justice was exceeded only by his commitment to his family.”

Mr. Corboy practiced personal injury trial law for more than 50 years, co-founding the Chicago firm Corboy & Demetrio, which was known to many as “The University of Corboy,” where many of Chicago’s top lawyers learned from the master.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to have studied under one of the greatest legal minds this country has ever seen,” said Bob Clifford, a personal injury attorney who was one of Mr. Corboy’s most successful protégés.

“If you were to look at the list, it’s pretty remarkable, on both sides of the aisle,” Clifford said. “Mostly plaintiff’s lawyers, but look at even some of the great defense lawyers. Phil’s influence on both sides of the aisles is amazing because he taught lawyers how to be professional and demanding.”

When Todd Smith of the Chicago firm of Power Rogers and Smith was elected president of the American Trial LAwyers Association, he tried to thank Mr. Corboy for his years of mentoring, “He stopped me — he wouldn’t let me do it,” Smith said. “He said, ‘Todd, we all stand on someone else’s shoulders. He had a ton of people standing on his shoulders.”

Death and catastrophic injury were Mr. Corboy’s business. As the personal injury attorney by whom all others are measured, he dealt with human tragedy every day. As a father, he suffered along with his clients.

In January 1999, Cook County Circuit Judge Joan Corboy, his only daughter, died in a freak accident involving an electric gate at the family’s Florida condominium. She was 46.

It was the second time Mr. Corboy had suffered the loss of a child in a sudden accident. In 1976, his 12-year-old son, Bobby, was struck and killed by a drunken driver while standing at the corner of Church and Crawford in Skokie in front of a pharmacy.

When Mr. Corboy and his wife, who was nearly 30 years his junior, returned home after Joan Corboy’s death, Monsignor Ken Velo, who married the couple in 1992, was there to greet their flight at Midway Airport.

“It was a cold, cold night,” Velo said. “When death strikes, sometimes you think of death as darkness and being alone. I wanted to be there for them as they were there for me and so many other people.”

Three days later, Jim Epstein, Joan Corboy’s husband of 19 years, coached his then-10-year-old daughter in a basketball game, with grandparents Phil and Mary on hand to watch. The following day, Epstein and his father-in-law delivered gut-wrenching eulogies at Joan Corboy’s funeral.

“It was part of demonstrating to ourselves and each other that life goes on. . . . My children have done this ever since. I keep telling them they’ve had the worst day of their lives already. Everything is uphill from here,” Epstein said.

For Mr. Corboy, the climb was excruciating, in part because of what son Philip H. “Flip” Corboy Jr. called the “special relationship” between father and daughter. Joan Corboy was not only the light of her father’s life, she was also a reflection of her hard-charging, fun-loving father.

While pregnant with son Matt, Joan Corboy was lead prosecutor in eight jury trials, completing the last one just a few days before giving birth.

“I have two primary assets . . . in handling this. One is my wife. The other is my surviving sons,” Mr. Corboy told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000.

“They’re all crushed, as is my wife. But by working together and communicating together and seeking surcease and acceptance, we’ve been fortunate in surviving. . . . I’m accepting it more and more every day. Things that caused me to start bawling now bring tears to my eyes.”

Flip Corboy described his father as a “lapsed Catholic” who for much of his adult life had “no involvement” in the church, even though he was raised Roman Catholic.

“At one time, I wanted to be a priest,” Philip Corboy told the Sun-Times during the 2000 interview on the “power pair” that he and Dempsey had become. “My mother said, ‘Why don’t you wait until the end of the summer before making up your mind?’ By that time, puberty had set in, and I was no longer interested.”

In 1985 — “after Mary,” as Flip Corboy put it — religion became a focal point of Mr. Corboy’s life. He started going to church regularly and got involved in the Big Shoulders Fund and in the Catholic Church Extension Society, where Dempsey serves on the board of governors. He became a confidante to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who gave Mr. Corboy and Dempsey the 1996 Big Shoulders Humanitarian Award for their commitment to a fund for inner-city Catholic schools.

“I found a resource that was always available. I didn’t have an absence of religion in my life (before). I just didn’t pay as much attention to it until 15 years ago,” he said.

In 1993, when Steven Cook made national headlines by accusing Bernardin of sexual abuse, the cardinal turned to Mr. Corboy for advice before giving depositions in the case.

“He looked at me with his deep blue, Italian eyes and said, ‘Phil, I’m absolutely innocent of this.’ And I said, ‘Your Eminence, everybody who knows you knows this,’ ” Mr. Corboy said.

“I told him to do what he’s done all his life: Ignore your profession (the media) and it’ll all work out, and it did.”

When Bernardin died in November 1996, ending a public battle that showed how to accept death with grace, Mr. Corboy was asked to be one of the pallbearers.

Phil Corboy attended four colleges and graduated first in his class in 1949 from the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, though he never got a bachelor’s degree.

He was the brother, son, grandson and nephew of Chicago police officers who grew up in poverty, wearing his cousins’ hand-me-down clothes.

He attended St. Margaret Mary Grade School in Rogers Park at St. George’s High School in Evanston.

His father was paid in scrip during the Great Depression, bought the family’s first car when Mr. Corboy was a freshman in high school and worked extra jobs to pay a mountain of medical bills for Mr. Corboy’s mother, an invalid who still managed to cook great dinners and bake fabulous desserts.

“I didn’t know my dad too well,” Mr. Corboy said. “I played basketball in high school [at now-defunct St. George High School], and I don’t remember my dad ever watching me play.”

Flip Corboy said in a 2000 interview that it was that humble beginning that fueled his father’s extraordinary drive.

“It’s the most important factor of his life,” the son said. “He wanted to make sure his own family didn’t have to go through what he did.”

Phil Corboy saw it differently. He traced his “need to succeed” to an Army stint gone sour. A string of illnesses kept Mr. Corboy stateside during World War II. When many of his Army buddies died fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, the guilt was almost too much for Mr. Corboy to bear.

“I graduated first in my class, and I intended to the day I went to [law] school,” he said. “There was a fellow who was first in all of the exams up until the last one: Howard Wolfe. That summer, I don’t think Howard worked as hard as I did, and I beat him out by an itty-bit.”

From 1974 through 2000, the law firm of Corboy & Demetrio secured 387 settlements in excess of $1 million. Name the tragedy, and Mr. Corboy and his associates probably represented a victim or a surviving member of a victim’s family. They worked on the Tylenol poisoning case, the crash of commercial jetliners or the 1995 collision between a train and school bus that killed seven students in Fox River Grove.

While some business owners and elected officials might complain about the big-money lawsuits, which Mr. Corboy pioneered, raising their costs, “The fact is guys like Phil made it a safer world, whether it’s because of the safety valve lids on bottles of Tylenol or gas tanks on cars that don’t explode anymore or guards on machines — protecting the working man,” Clifford said. “Phil called it ‘graveyard engineering’ — some poor soul died to make it safer for the next guy.”

He became godfather to a boy while representing his father, who had lost a leg working for the Illinois Central RailRoad. The boy, Philip Minefee, then 15, held a summer job at Corboy & Demetrio and is now a 27-year-old photographer.

“When Dr. DeBakey supplies you with a new heart, he also gets well-paid. . . . I do not believe the fact that I am well-compensated interferes with my ability to help people,” said Mr. Corboy, whose firm receives a third of every award.

“I truly became ordained into this type of work, which has for its aim supplying compensation to spouses who’ve lost a spouse, children who’ve lost parents, parents who’ve lost children. They are saddled with tragedy which I have some knowledge of. They need someone to help them overcome it.”

The law firm that Mr. Corboy built after an 18-month apprenticeship under personal injury attorney James A. Dooley grew into Chicago’s preeminent personal injury law firm. Dozens of Corboy proteges attempted to compete with their mentor, but it was tough to match the master’s meticulous preparation and his unique and disparate abilities to mesmerize juries, intimidate opponents and promote his own success.

“A lawyer who doesn’t like to see his name in the paper is not a lawyer,” Mr. Corboy once said, unashamed.

A 1974 jury ruling in favor of Lillian Peluso, whose husband was killed in a chemical dust explosion, epitomized Mr. Corboy’s career, according to his longtime law partner Tom Demetrio.

“The foreman of the jury came up to Corboy and asked this question: ‘Mr. Corboy, did we do OK?’ That sums it up. When he’s in the courtroom, there is a respect for his command of the arena that, in many ways, is parental. They’re his children, and they want to please him,” Demetrio said.

In the 2000 interview, Mr. Corboy not only ruled out retirement, he banned the word from his vocabulary. It repulsed him.

“People who retire die. It means they’re tired. I’m not tired,” he said.

“I’m at the zenith of my being able to practice law. I’m more and more capable of the exhilaration that comes with providing decent compensation to people who have suffered tragedies. . . . There’s still work for me to do in a field where I can still help people with this magnificent boutique law firm that I have.”

A friend once joked that, when Phil Corboy died, they’d put a phone in his casket. It wasn’t much of a joke. The couple’s 5,500-square-foot Gold Coast condominium literally has a phone every few feet. There were two of them in Mr. Corboy’s bathroom — one by the commode and one at the sink for when he shaved.

The spectacular two-story apartment — a combination of two smaller units on the 65th floor overlooking the lakefront — has enough paintings and sculptures to fill a small art museum and enough family photos to occupy a shelf full of albums. On either side of the marble-floored entry are two lithographs, one signed in crayon by Picasso, the other by Chagall.

In 2000, a Schwinn Airdyne bicycle sat in another spare bedroom with a copy of

American Pharoah on a plastic book rack. Mr. Corboy wasn’t just reading the book about the late Mayor Richard J. Daley while exercising. He was “editing” it for mistakes. A stickler for details, it drove him nuts to read a book that contained factual errors about people he knew. Marking the pages of a book he was supposedly reading for pleasure made him feel better.

The National Law Journal listed Mr. Corboy as one of the top 100 most influential lawyers in the country since beginning its survey in 1985. One of only 13 lawyers nationwide to hold that distinction, Mr. Corboy also has been listed in “The Best Lawyers in America” since its inception in 1987.

He was a former president of the Chicago Bar Association and of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, as well as a former chairman of the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association and former chair of the American Bar Association’s Special Committee on Medical Professional Liability.

Mr. Corboy served as general counsel for the Illinois Democratic Party and has served on the boards of directors of business, legal and charitable groups and as a member of task forces for courts, judicial and medical-related entities.

Mr. Corboy’s charity work was legendary, leading the Catholic Archdiocese ‘Big Shoulders’ fund for years, endowing buildings in his name at Loyola’s law school and a room at the Chicago Bar Association.

His contributions often came with one caveat: “I request that there be given no publicity to this correspondence or its enclosure,” he wrote with a check he sent for a Mexican family hit by a car, said attorney Matthew Farmer.

“If he read about a family who could not afford a corrective surgery for a child, he would send me to the bank which had been designated as the depository of the proceeds for the benefit to raise funds with a purseful of cash to deposit into the account,” said his longtime law firm administrator Marcy A. Twardak.

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, whose job is to fight the plaintiffs’ bar that Corboy built up, paid him tribute: “Although we have disagreed with him on many specific cases, his has been one of the plaintiff’s firms that has operated with the highest level of integrity and honesty,” Murnane said. At conferences where they spoke on opposite sides of the issues, “Phil was always good and fair and friendly to us and I always enjoyed talking to him.”

Mr. Corboy is also survived by two other sons, John R. Corboy and Thomas M. Corboy; eight grandchildren; and a brother.

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