Photo by Michelle Nolan.

Photo by Michelle Nolan.

As the pandemic continues, trial lawyer Philip Harnett Corboy Jr. has grown increasingly concerned that the American appreciation for the civil justice system – what he refers to as “a delicate organism” – will begin to wane. Any citizen looking to renew this appreciation might best take a look at a career like Corboy’s, which has been devoted to the concept of access to justice through excellent courtroom advocacy. Corboy, who is known as Flip by all, prosecuted violent felonies for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, before building a renowned plaintiffs’ practice in which he has accumulated a remarkable record of multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements.

That he has built this record at the legendary Chicago firm of Corboy & Demetrio – started by his father Philip H. Corboy, who passed away in 2012, and Thomas Demetrio – means that Corboy also has a long history of extra-practice commitments to the community and his profession. A past president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, Corboy now serves on the board of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Foundation.

Lawdragon: What are some of the cases keeping you busy these days?

Philip Corboy: A wrongful death lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale, Broward County, Florida, involving an exploding Tesla S, as well as a number of wrongful death cases involving construction and transportation companies here in Illinois. We're also actively in litigation stemming from a cancer cluster here in the Chicago area against Shell Oil, and individual cases involving Zantac, Round-Up and Sterigenics, to name a few. We also have a long history of professional negligence cases against doctors and hospitals, as well as litigation on behalf of clients whose sperm was negligently kept and then destroyed by a fertility clinic operated by a major hospital here in Chicago.

We've always been involved in airliner crash litigation and currently have wrongful death cases coming out of the Ethiopian Air 302 and Lion Air - Indonesia crashes of 2019 involving the Boeing Max 737.

LD: Can you talk about how the pandemic is affecting your practice or the firm more broadly?

PC: Like every other law firm, ours has been affected by the pandemic. Our practice involves quick and easy access to the courts, and the pandemic has affected our ability to conduct discovery and work up the cases for trial in a timely fashion. As all trial lawyers know, if you’re unable to get to the courthouse and try cases, coupled with the lack of jurors’ enthusiasm for appearing for jury selection, the road to “fair and reasonable” verdicts gets stopped in its tracks.

Most of our work is done in state courts throughout Illinois, and we’ve had the benefit of working with some hardworking, smart judges who have supervisory powers in their jurisdictions. They’re working creatively with plaintiffs’ lawyers, defense attorneys, the medical community and political office holders to keep the gears of the civil justice system working during this unprecedented time in our history. But there are a lot of moving parts, and all it takes is one of those interested parties to gum up the works. And Zoom and BlueJeans systems are helpful, but they’re not a long-term solution for in-court trials. We’re all working toward an end game in which things get back to normal, but I don’t think that’s going to happen until we get to where jurors feel comfortable leaving the relative safety of their home, traveling to a courthouse, sitting for jury selection, hearing our cases and then rendering a verdict.

And it’s my personal opinion it won’t happen until there’s a vaccine that’s accepted by all who have the power to bring the courts back together again to ensure fairness and justice for all of us in the system. I’ve talked to a great many trial attorneys across the country and we all seem to acknowledge that we’ve had to expand the type and number of cases, like commercial and insurance-related litigation cases, to round out our needs going forward.

LD: If this is going to last for a while, are there ways in which you think the pandemic might have a permanent impact on plaintiffs’ access to justice or how civil litigation is administered more generally?

PC: Yes. The longer the pandemic fuels the slowdown of the civil justice system, the more our clients are going to suffer a second indignity of the system not being able to properly and carefully take care of their needs. The civil justice system in America is a delicate organism that constantly needs to be improved upon and taken seriously as an important part of the rights of all Americans. The longer this lasts, the harder it’s going to be for Americans from all different parts of the country to remember and appreciate the real value of the system going forward.

There are lawyers with a wonderful sense of institutional history and knowledge of the system that I’ve talked to who had planned to work many, many more years in the future, but are now looking more and more at retiring, and that would be a very sad byproduct of the pandemic. They’re lawyers who’ve had wonderful careers, can still try cases at the top of their game, who are not really that old when it comes to their abilities, imagination and the charisma to continue to try cases, but who are feeling that their practices have been consumed by the pandemic. And they feel it’s not worth it any longer, all things considered equal. Furthermore, younger lawyers coming out of law school and the public offices are facing short-term and long-term doubts about wanting to become trial lawyers. They have student loans that are getting more and more difficult to manage.

As I said, the whole system is dependent on the ability to get jurors into a box, sit patiently listening to the facts and testimony and then render a fair and impartial verdict. And you can’t be upset with potential jurors if they’re uncomfortable with leaving the safety of their homes and sitting in a jury box for two or three weeks, sitting next to and conferring with people they’ve never met before, while worried if they are safe. Very unsettling.

LD: I read in one piece that you described yourself as a child of the 1960s. Can you talk a little bit about that and the path that eventually got you to law school?

PC: I matured from being a boy to a young man during one of the most tumultuous times politically, socially and culturally in our country’s history. I graduated from the insulation of a New England boarding school where there were a lot of interesting kids from very diverse backgrounds. I was politically active by standards of that time. In 1968, I was a page for the Arkansas delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and was able to be up close and in person for what had to be four of the craziest days in American political history. I stayed politically active when I went to college at Villanova University, which meant marching in Washington against the Vietnam War and helping political candidates on weekends by canvassing in congressional districts all along the East Coast.

Following graduation, I went to Washington, D.C., naively thinking I could help change the world. I soon discovered that my entryway to that world was a job as an elevator operator in the United States Senate under the patronage of my Senator at that time, Adlai Stevenson III. It was a fun job, but it wasn’t something I moved to Washington to do. About halfway through I ran into a congressman who was a family friend from Chicago and who had an opening in his office as a low-level staffer. I’m pretty sure it was at the lowest pay grade on Capitol Hill. But it had one incredible benefit – it was right in the middle of Watergate and my boss let me and the other staffers go to the Judiciary Committee’s huge room to watch the proceedings live and in person whenever we had time. After that, I was hooked. I decided I wanted to go to law school.

LD: What led you to a trial career?

PC: Once in law school, at DePaul College of Law, I ran into the same congressman who was having dinner with a friend of his who turned out to be a very prominent criminal defense attorney here in Chicago. He just happened to be looking for a part-time law clerk and his office was three blocks away from school. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to learn something I knew nothing about. So, I took the job and upon graduation, with the help of him and others, I was able to get a job in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago. And the rest is history. I stayed in that office for seven-and-a-half years.  I had over 40 jury verdicts, eventually ending up in the felony trial division prosecuting murder, armed robbery and rape cases.

And one day I got a call from a partner at a big law firm here in Chicago who was the head of that firm’s white-collar defense division. He had a large international practice and needed an associate. I sat on it to think for a while when about the same time, Tom Demetrio sought me out and we went to lunch. He explained all of the benefits of coming to work at Corboy & Demetrio. I eventually accepted the offer and it’s been a wonderful ride since then. Working here has allowed me to practice in a field that I love and with people with whom I’ve become very close and on cases I want to try and feel good about helping people who need it. The plaintiffs’ bar throughout the country spends a lot of time and energy reminding everyone about the need for preservation of the civil justice system, and through that, I’ve been allowed to work with a whole host of interesting, dedicated and smart people who’ve made a big difference in the lives of people who needed them at the most delicate, sensitive time in their lives.

LD: Is there a case from your long career representing injured people and their families that stands out in your memory for one reason or another?

PC: I’ve had the opportunity to work for some wonderful people who’ve had the singular misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up with injuries that have completely compromised their lives. A vast majority of them understand their plight and reach out for as much help that all of us at Corboy & Demetrio can offer at what is usually the saddest chapter of their lives. All of us here at C&D are extremely humbled that our clients have entrusted us with their futures, and we don’t take anything for granted.

It makes us so grateful that we’re able to “do well by doing good.” Most of the people you meet and represent in my business come from very humble middle-class and working-class backgrounds who’ve had their lives upended by tragic circumstances. We almost always have technical, sophisticated issues involving commercial products that break down or automobiles that end up crashing or planes that are seemingly safe, but which don’t make a safe return to terra firma. We have a passion for what we do knowing full well that we have to be patient when dealing with situations where patience may not be easy to maintain.

LD: What’s an example?

PC: As an example, a case where I felt very grateful to be able to help out in a big way was a situation involving a client who was working on a construction project in a semi-rural part of our state when a plank of wood fell from a couple of floors above him, landing on his back and rendering him an incomplete quadriplegic with minimal use of his arms and shoulders.

He was a simple man who had come from a rural part of Arkansas to work in Illinois. One of the things we learned about him was that he was a big fan of golf. One of the things we were able to do for him following his jury verdict was to help him continue his love of the game. When the verdict was read in the courtroom he started to cry because he was now going to be able to do what he wanted, which was to play golf using a tricked-out, custom-made golf cart specifically designed for people like him. That’s it. No great plans to build a big house or buy an expensive boat. Just a pretty cool golf cart. To most of us that wouldn’t be a big deal but to him, it meant that he was going to be able to go outside and enjoy the rest of his life on his terms.

I also remember a client and his family whose wife was killed while walking along one of our downtown streets in Chicago when a windowpane that had been cracked and deteriorating for a long time fell from, of all things, the CNA insurance building. She was an undocumented worker from Mexico who was walking with her very young daughter to her second job as a hotel housekeeper.

Ironically, her daughter was born on the exact day, at the same maternity hospital and on the exact same floor as my wife’s and my now 25-year old daughter. Who would’ve predicted that! As it played out, the two little girls have celebrated a couple of birthdays together and stay in touch to this day. It’s episodes like this that reinforce my belief that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to do what I want to do and meet people whom I’ve truly become fond of for the rest of my life.

LD: I know you have a long history of public interest and philanthropic commitments. Are there any that you wish to highlight?

PC: I’ve been blessed by meeting fascinating, interesting and serious-minded people throughout my life who view their responsibilities to include making the world better for everybody. I’ve been lucky to have had leadership roles with a number of organizations that have a direct impact on the lives of people who’ve been kept down on the socioeconomic ladder through no fault of their own.

I was on the Board of the Legal Assistance Foundation here in Chicago for over twenty years and was graced with being its President in 2008. The Legal Assistance Foundation (now called Legal Aid Chicago) serves the legal needs of Chicago’s poor, sick, aged and immigrant communities and is the second-largest legal aid provider in the country. I was also privileged to be the President of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association at a time when our state’s civil justice system was under attack by tort reformers who were able to convince our lawmakers to enact draconian, self-serving legislation limiting the rights of people who had been horribly injured and killed. I’m happy to report that we had that legislation ruled unconstitutional and overturned in our Supreme Court and the system has moved along smoothly ever since.

LD: Can you tell us about your involvement with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation?

PC: Currently I’m on the Board of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Foundation, which is charged with helping America’s world-class athletes with opportunities to participate at the highest-level Olympic Games and international competitions and then help in preparing them for their post-athletic careers.

I first got involved with the USOPF when my wife and I met Jessica Long, the greatest Paralympic athlete in American history. She’s won multiple swimming gold medals and world records and is an inspiration to everyone she meets. Born in Siberia with complications resulting in both legs requiring amputation, she was put up for adoption and rescued by an American couple from Baltimore who enrolled her in a local swimming program as an outlet to help her and her infectious personality. From there she soared into the highest levels of the swimming world to the point where she’s unanimously identified as America’s greatest Paralympian. Jessica spoke to us about how great the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation was for her self-esteem and confidence while allowing her to practice, prepare for and compete at the most elite, international levels. Her story was one of the most positive and uplifting sagas we’ve been blessed to be a part of and a short time later I accepted an invitation to be a Trustee of the USOPF and then a member of its Board a couple of years later.

It’s a serious responsibility in these very crazy times. The 2020 Olympics were canceled, and we’re still trying to figure out if the Olympics will go as planned in Tokyo in 2021. But in any event, the USOPF has given me a chance to meet many elite-level athletes and hear their stories of perseverance and success. It makes me very proud and humbled to be a part of the Olympic movement and be able to help and support our athletes to be the best they can be under some incredibly difficult circumstances. A day or two with any of these superstars gives me hope that the next generation of leaders will somehow make our world a better place to live.