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Corboy’s 1st trial -- 50 years ago this month

Originally published Nov. 5, 2000

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.

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