Onetime Illinois supreme court justice Thomas E. Kluczynski and his wife, Melanie, sued Delta Airlines in 1976 after they were bumped from a flight. Credit: Sun-Times Archive

As soon as I saw the video of city aviation police dragging David Dao from a United Airlines plane, I said, “It’s a damn shame Dao can’t get Philip Corboy to file his lawsuit.”

Oh, I figured there’d be a lawsuit—my guess is everybody had the same hunch.

And there would be no one better suited to bring that case before a Chicago jury than Corboy, one of the city’s great personal injury lawyers. But Corboy died in 2012.

Curiously, Corboy once mounted a case with remarkable parallels to Doa’s.

The case involved a retired Illinois supreme court judge named Thomas Kluczynski and his wife, Melanie, who were bumped from a Delta flight in 1976 because the airline had overbooked the flight.

In this instance, Delta was a little more subtle with their tactics than United—they stopped the Kluczynskis from boarding the plane.

So Delta didn’t feel compelled to call in aviation department police to drag the Kluczynskis out of their seats, down the aisle, and off the plane. Or bloody their noses. Or give them concussions. Or knock out a few of their teeth. As those aviation department police allegedly did to Dao.

Apparently, aviation police do as they’re told when an airline barks out an order. Man, I haven’t seen such servility on behalf of airline chieftains since Mayor Emanuel signed a letter—drafted by industry lobbyists—asking the Obama administration to approve American’s merger with U.S. Airways.

The Kluczynski trial took place in 1981, not long after I’d moved to Chicago and taken a job as—of all things—a writer for a local law journal that’s long since gone out of business.

Back then, this case was big news on my beat. Lawyers were in awe of Corboy. In fact, the rapture with which they described his performance in the Kluczynski case reminded me of old hoopsters talking about the day in the 70s when playground legend Billy “the Kid” Harris dropped about 70 points in a pickup game at Margate Park.

In both instances, they felt blessed to have witnessed genius at work.

In the matter of Corboy, he had a few obstacles, starting with his clients. The Kluczynskis were flying to Ocala, Florida, to hang out with other rich and mighty people to watch the birth of a foal at some rich guy’s ranch.

Thomas was the brother of Congressman John Kluczynski, “a man so powerful he had a federal building named after him,” as James Touhy put it in his masterful account of the case in the old Chicago Lawyer newspaper.

“It’s not a case that appeared likely to launch a jury of regular citizens to the rescue of the Kluczynskis, who were not exactly Ma and Pa Have-not,” wrote Touhy.

The case came down to Corboy’s ability to deliver in his closing argument. “This is a case,” he began, involving “the civil rights of the passengers of this community, the fare-paying people who believe when they pay for a ticket, they get the ticket to get to their destination.”

To deter Delta and other airlines from overbooking, Corboy told the jury it had to consider Delta’s assets because “big business recognizes money.”

Delta’s worth $1 billion, he continued. “If you were to take about “one-one-hundredth of 1 percent of their net assets, that’s $100,000. Some people spend all their lives saving 10,000 bucks. One-one-hundredth of 1 percent of $10,000 is a dollar. . . So if you fine this company to the extent of $100,000, it is the same as fining somebody or punishing somebody for the purpose of deterring them from acting in the future by one dollar.”

At this point, Touhy wrote, Corboy reached into his pocket “took out a one dollar bill, straightened it, and held it before the jury by both hands.”

“The jury was out for five hours,” he continued. “When it returned, it had awarded $4,000 each in actual damages and $200,000 in punitive damages. Two of those little $1 bills.”

And as long as we’re paying homage to masterful performances—well done, Touhy!

Eventually, the trial judge cut the damages to $7,000. And, as Dao recently learned, the verdict hardly deterred airlines from overbooking their flights.

But none of that has stopped lawyers from praising Corboy’s performance. To this day, I can find lawyers who marvel over the dramatic impact of Corboy pulling that dollar bill out of his pocket.

As with Billy “the Kid” Harris, Corboy clearly was one of a kind.

Out of curiosity, I checked to see who Dao had hired as his lawyer. Sure enough, it was Thomas Demetrio from Corboy’s old law firm.

It was apparent from yesterday’s press conference that Demetrio had learned a trick or two from his mentor. “Will there be a lawsuit?” Demetrio said in response to a question. “Yeah, probably.”

Consider that the understatement of the century.

At the moment, the only suspense is whether Chicago will be on the hook for the actions of the aviation department police, whom Demetrio likened to “storm troopers”.

Better get ready, Chicago taxpayers, to dig into your own pockets—just like Corboy did. Only in this case, you can be sure it’ll cost much more than a dollar.