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Did Corboy & Demetrio Blow It?

After Melissa Pinnick was killed in a horrible crash, her family retained the high-powered law firm. Now that the family is suing the lawyers, all that power may be a problem. The Pinnicks say conflicts of interest will prevent them from getting a fair he

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Cortland Pinnick was six years old when he saw his mother's head turned almost all the way around on her neck. They were heading south in a rented car on I-65 near Crown Point, Indiana, on their way back to Atlanta after a family visit to Joliet. Cortland's mother, Melissa, was sitting in the front seat next to the driver, her cousin Constance McNair. Cortland and his 21-month-old sister, Manna, shared the backseat with McNair's two children. In the darkness, McNair heard a thump. She lost control and the car left the road. It spun around in the median strip and came to rest straddling the opposite lanes. The lights and radio were off, the car wouldn't start, and the doors wouldn't unlock. Within seconds they were struck by a northbound Cadillac going 65 miles per hour. Melissa Pinnick was nearly decapitated and died instantly. McNair suffered a broken jaw and a punctured lung. Manna was badly injured. The passenger in the Cadillac, the driver's mother, was killed.

In the aftermath of the accident, Melissa's two children, Cortland and Manna, were taken in by her father and stepmother, Robert and Milvertha Pinnick, who lived in Joliet. The traumatized family retained a lawyer, a family friend, to explore their legal options. Potential defendants included the manufacturers of the car and its tires, the agency in Atlanta that had rented the car, and the driver of the Cadillac. Their lawyer figured the case was one for the big leagues and brought the family to Chicago to consult with one of the most prestigious plaintiff's law firms in the country, Corboy & Demetrio.

Corboy & Demetrio is a small firm, but all 12 of its partners made the 2008 Illinois Super Lawyers list compiled by Law & Politics magazine. As the firm advertises, it "has acquired over $3 billion in settlements and verdicts and has attained more than 500 settlements and verdicts, each in excess of $1 million or more." Last February when five women were killed by an armed robber at the Lane Bryant store in Tinley Park, Corboy & Demetrio, representing the family of one of the victims, immediately got an emergency court order to preserve all the evidence. As partner Michael Demetrio stated then in a news release: "It is imperative that we secure any and all records and information pertaining to this horrific killing in order to properly protect the legal rights and interests of [their clients]."

The Pinnicks sued Corboy & Demetrio and two other attorneys for failing to preserve the car and for legal malpractice and lost. They also lost an appeal, and now they're asking the Illinois Supreme Court to hear their case. And in an unprecedented move, they're asking four of the seven justices to disqualify themselves. The Pinnicks argue that political contributions to these justices by Corboy & Demetrio attorneys "present grave issues" regarding the judges' impartiality. The issue of political contributions interfering with justice on the supreme court has never been litigated in Illinois.

Millie Pinnick remembers the day she and other family members visited the Loop offices of Corboy & Demetrio. It was September 1, 1995, two weeks after her stepdaughter was killed. Vincent Cornelius, the family friend they'd retained, took them to Corboy for a consultation, and attorney G. Grant Dixon III, who's no longer with the firm, "gave us the grand tour, the spiral staircase," Millie Pinnick says. "The conference room was like a grand ballroom somewhere. There were videos for the kids to watch. Anything you wanted was right at hand." Corboy & Demetrio took the case, promising Cornelius a standard referral fee of one-third of Corboy's fee, which would be one-third of any damages recovered.

The firm started looking into the case at once. The wrecked car, a 1994 Mitsubishi Diamante, had been towed to a lot in Highland, Indiana. They sent a private investigator to take photos of it. He reported that the left rear tire appeared defective, in his judgment not apparently "due to the damage or impact." Robert Bingle, Corboy's managing partner, noted that the "rental company has made attempts to retrieve the car." Bingle's notes, entered as evidence in the malpractice case, added, "Need protective order on vehicle? @ Highland Towing." Bingle listed car manufacturer Mitsubishi, tire manufacturer Goodyear, and McFrugal, the Atlanta-based rental agency, as potential defendants.

But Corboy's lawyers did not seek a court order to protect the car as evidence. And sure enough, the car quickly disappeared. The private investigator tried to find out from the towing company what had happened to the car and reported to the firm on September 27 that it was "lost." For the next year, Corboy's lawyers and their investigators looked for an "exemplar" car—a car of the identical make and model—even going so far as to place a want ad for one in the Daily Herald, but they struck out. (Dixon later went to Atlanta to try to find a salvage title for the wrecked car but failed; a salvage title eventually surfaced in Florida.)

Corboy's lawyers told the Pinnicks and Cornelius, the referring attorney, that they couldn't make a product liability case. With no big corporate defendant the case had become small potatoes, and Cornelius expected the firm to hand it back to him, but Corboy held on to it and pursued a relatively small reward: the firm sued the driver of the Cadillac that had T-boned the Mitsubishi for negligence. That driver, James Dinsmore, of Germantown, Wisconsin, was insured to $100,000—realistically the most that the Pinnicks could hope to recover.

The case was filed in federal court in northern Indiana, where the accident occurred, and three years later, in December 1998, the judge threw it out, dismissing it "with prejudice" and rebuking Corboy & Demetrio for a "litany of discovery abuses." The firm appealed but their appeal was rejected in July '99.

Parts of the Corboy firm's case summary have been redacted in the name of attorney-client privilege. Still, the summary does reveal some of what went on between the family and the firm at this time. It says that on August 18, 1999, managing partner Robert Bingle told the Pinnick family and their original attorney, Vincent Cornelius, "that we felt it was in everyone's best interest that at this point that we step out of the case and they hire new attorneys to take over." Bingle told Cornelius that the firm's malpractice insurance would cover him, should any malpractice action proceed.

And one soon did. After talking with Cornelius about the Pinnicks' case, Chicago attorney Charles "Pat" Boyle advised the family to sue for legal malpractice and fraud. He says, "I had done some professional negligence cases and I didn't have any qualms" about filing the case. The suit, filed December 21, 2000, in Joliet and later moved to Chicago, sought damages of $25 million.

According to the Cook County Circuit Court Web site, since 1987 there have been nine lawsuits filed against the firm of Corboy & Demetrio; three were for legal malpractice. In 1998, after a problematic hernia operation, the actor Tim Kazurinsky hired Corboy to file a medical malpractice suit. Eighteen months later, the firm admitted that it had failed to file before the statute of limitations ran out. Kazurinsky sued for legal malpractice and the case was settled out of court for undisclosed terms. The second, filed in February 2007 by Rosanne Dresher, alleged that Corboy attorneys had coerced her to sign legal papers while she was sedated in a hospital room. The third was the Pinnicks'.

The family waited six years for a ruling. In January 2007 Judge William Maddux found in their favor on one count of legal malpractice—for the Indiana case against Dinsmore—and entered a judgment of $100,000. But he dismissed the fraud count and found in favor of the defendants on the other three counts of legal malpractice, saying, "Plaintiffs are not able to provide sufficient evidence to establish that there ever was viable product liability claims against Mitsubishi, Goodyear and McFrugal." It was a catch-22. The Pinnicks had argued that they couldn't provide sufficient evidence because the wrecked car had disappeared. Maddux said Corboy & Demetrio could have protected the car and hadn't, yet the firm wasn't negligent in letting the car get away. "No Illinois court has ever held that a lawyer's mere opportunity to exercise control over the evidence at issue is sufficient to establish a duty on behalf of the lawyer to go out and preserve the instrumentality."

The Pinnicks were stuck: they couldn't make a product liability claim without that crucial evidence, and they couldn't hold their lawyers responsible for not securing the crucial evidence because without the car they couldn't show it was crucial.

Geoffrey Hazard Jr., professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on legal malpractice, testified for the Pinnicks as an expert witness. He says that cases like theirs are difficult to win "for essentially the same reason that medical malpractice cases are not easy. There is a lot of reluctance in both professions [lawyers and doctors] to testify against one another. Lawyers generally are respected people, dealing with a complex art called the practice of law. The law and the courts rightly don't want to be Monday morning quarterbacks."

Hazard would not comment directly on the Pinnicks' case, referring instead to an affidavit he filed on their behalf in 2002. Cornelius had said in a deposition that Bingle told him "his people checked the car out, [and] there were no issues with the car." But Hazard said this claim was "wholly inconsistent with the [firm's] file expenses, which show no expenditures for any 'checking out' of the car." Further, Hazard said, they had "immediately recognized the importance of locating the car wreckage" and "it was an obvious and serious mistake for the Corboy firm to assert [in the Indiana case] that there was no basis for liability against any other" potential defendant.

Marvel Rake Jr., a Phoenix lawyer who specializes in wrongful-death cases, said in a deposition for the Pinnicks, "As soon as you locate the vehicle, you send whoever is holding that vehicle a spoliation letter and say, in essence, 'This is a valuable piece of evidence. You are advised that there may or may not be a lawsuit filed about this, but if you take any actions to modify, destroy, alter, you will be subject to a suit.'... I don't know whether you can or cannot obtain a protective order [from a court] in two weeks, but you can write that spoliation letter. That costs you a stamp."

The Pinnicks next stop: the Illinois Appellate Court.

The founder of Corboy & Demetrio, Philip Corboy Sr., 84, knows everybody who's anybody. He helped establish the modern plaintiffs' personal injury bar in Illinois, his own success enhancing its respectability and prestige. Neither he nor his son and partner, Philip "Flip" Corboy Jr., appear to have had any personal involvement with the Pinnick case, but the senior Corboy is a grand old man of Illinois law and politics, and the Pinnicks contend that his connections and those of some of his associates could influence how their case is heard.

An Irish Catholic Democrat who grew up in West Rogers Park, the senior Corboy is the son and grandson of Chicago police officers. He got his law degree at Loyola in 1948, a time when the corporate bar was almost exclusively a WASP redoubt populated by Ivy Leaguers. Shut out of blue-chip firms, working-class kids from Chicago law schools often launched their careers in the state's attorney or public defender's office, eventually becoming plaintiff's lawyers and, perhaps, Cook County judges. Corboy has observed "when I started the practice of law, all judges came through the political system."

So did he. A 49th Ward precinct captain as a young man, Corboy in 1972 became the first personal injury attorney elected president of the Chicago Bar Association. By 1974 he was among the first personal injury lawyers in the country to win a million-dollar jury verdict. The judge in the Pinnick case, William Maddux, who presides over the Circuit Court's Law Division, has called Corboy "by far the best I've ever seen.... He beat my pants off every time I got halfway near him."

A 2005 study by the American Bar Foundation found that two-thirds of Cook County Law Division judges—the judges who preside over personal injury and other civil disputes—came from Chicago law schools: Loyola, DePaul, Chicago-Kent, and John Marshall. As the study put it, "many of the qualities of the Democratic machine (e.g., hierarchy, loyalty, strong social relations) are reproduced in the Chicago plaintiffs' bar."

Corboy has said of Loyola law school graduate Michael Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House, "I educated him on the issues. And ever since that time, I have been a fervent follower of Michael Madigan." Madigan's daughter Lisa is the Illinois attorney general; Corboy donated $49,650 to her 2002 campaign and his partner Thomas A. Demetrio (Michael Demetrio's brother) gave her $22,940. Every year, Corboy and Thomas Demetrio each give $1,500 to the political fund of 14th Ward alderman and City Council Finance Committee chair Edward Burke; Thomas Demetrio also contributed to the campaign of supreme court justice Anne Burke, who's married to the alderman. Both Corboy and Thomas Demetrio contribute regularly to the Committee for the Retention of Judges in Cook County—the judges are slated by Democratic committeemen—and occasionally to the campaigns of individual judges and committeemen. Corboy donates to the Democratic organizations of Cook County and Illinois, and he is the state party's former general counsel. In sum, campaign financial disclosures show, Corboy and Thomas Demetrio personally have contributed a total of nearly $600,000 to Democratic politicians and to a heavily Democratic lobby, the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, since 1994.

Grant Dixon, the former Corboy & Demetrio associate who first handled the Pinnick case, said in a deposition in 2001, "I didn't see any evidence that would support even a remotely decent case against Mitsubishi... [and] not even a slight claim for product liability against the tire manufacturer." Lacking such evidence, he said, "I wouldn't go down and inspect the vehicle."

Yet Dixon himself stated in a 1998 motion in the Indiana case that "it is undisputed that the left tire and/or wheel 'brake down' [sic] caused the initial loss of control" by the driver of the Diamante. That damaged left tire was observed by the investigator Corboy & Demetrio had sent to look at the car.

A three-judge panel of the state appeals court upheld Judge Maddux's ruling. The panel took the unusual step of agreeing to consider arguments for a rehearing, but on October 20, the same three justices—Rodolfo Garcia, Robert Gordon, and Warren Wolfson—issued a ruling matching their first one nearly word for word. Their opinion said, "We fail to understand why the defendants would not have attempted to preserve the vehicle by filing a protective order. Nevertheless... defendants did not have the requisite possession or control over the vehicle to establish a duty to preserve it." Catch-22.

On November 24 the Pinnicks filed a petition seeking leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. In a separate motion they asked for the disqualification of justices Thomas Fitzgerald, Charles Freeman, Robert Thomas, and Anne Burke. Alleging "close and confidential relationships between Defendants [Corboy & Demetrio, Bingle, and Dixon] and several justices," the Pinnicks said the four should step aside because they "or their spouses have received campaign contributions well in excess of $10,000 from Defendants or Defendants' counsel, experts and witnesses." They asked the court to appoint temporary replacements to hear the case.

Campaign financial records show that the Corboys, father and son, the Demetrio brothers, and Bingle have given a total of $73,750 to three of the justices' political committees—$52,500 for Fitzgerald, $16,250 for Thomas, and $5,000 for Freeman—and that Corboy and Thomas Demetrio gave $1,500 to Burke's campaign. Although she ran unopposed in this year's February primary and November 4 general election, Burke's political committee raised $1.7 million and has $420,000 in the bank.

The Pinnicks' petition goes on to say that lawyers Robert Clifford and Joseph Power, expert witnesses for the Corboy firm, have contributed $25,000 to Freeman and $17,000 to Thomas. And it points out that Power represented Thomas in the Kane County Chronicle defamation suit that saw a jury award Thomas $7 million. No date has been set for the supreme court to consider the Pinnicks' motions.

While awaiting the outcome of the 13-year-old case, Melissa Pinnick's now-widowed stepmother, Millie Pinnick, is working a $13-an-hour job without health insurance and continuing to raise Manna Pinnick, a disabled ninth grader. Pinnick says she exhausted her savings and retirement funds to care for her step-grandchildren, her biggest expenses being medical bills. When her husband, Robert, Melissa's father, died in 2000, she says, "We didn't have the money saved up to take care of me and two kids." Cortland, now 19, has needed periodic psychiatric care since the accident, and Millie herself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She's managed. "Being a proud individual, I have never thought about state aid," she says.

"I don't wear my feelings on my shoulders, so people assume that things must be OK," Pinnick says. One feeling, however, she doesn't keep to herself: "People with money have screwed me all my life."v

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