A lion’s roar was silenced today. William V. Johnson, long-time president of Johnson & Bell and a legendary trial attorney, died at the age of 82. He passed away at home on Friday, January 28, surrounded by his family.
“Bill was the heart and soul of J&B and a dear friend and mentor to so many of us,” stated Robert M. Burke, president of Johnson & Bell. “His leadership and the respect he so deservedly received from friends and adversaries alike shaped our law firm and built the reputation of our firm. I know how proud Bill was of J&B and the successes of everyone here. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Bill and John Bell for passing on to us a successful and highly respected law firm. We can all honor Bill by trying to practice law and treat each other as professionally and fairly as he did,” he said.
Referred to as one of the “lions” of the defense bar, attorneys from other firms would stop by the Cook County courthouse in the 1970s to watch Mr. Johnson in action. In fact, that’s how John W. Bell, co-founder of Johnson & Bell, first saw Bill Johnson. Intrigued and impressed by Johnson’s courtroom style, Bell succeeded in recruiting Johnson in 1975 to join the firm that would become Johnson & Bell.
Johnson became president of the firm in 1979, beginning a 40-year run at the top. His career breakthrough came with the 1977 fire that destroyed the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, KY, killing 165 people. Johnson represented a defendant wire and cable manufacturer. After an eight-week trial, the jury returned a verdict for the defense. His career took off after that victory.
During the 1980s and 1990s, he traveled extensively, handling cases including the Miamisburg Train Derailment (Ohio), the DuPont Plaza Hotel Fire in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Bogalusa Chemical Spill, a class action case related to a chemical spill that occurred in Bogalusa, Louisiana.
He helped win a defense verdict from a Cook County, Ill., jury in favor of a local healthcare delivery system, following a two-week medical negligence trial in which damages in excess of $45 million were sought. For his efforts, Mr. Johnson and his litigation team won the Outstanding Defense Verdict Award-Medical Malpractice at the 2012 Jury Verdict Reporter Trial Lawyer Awards.
Regardless of his courtroom success, Mr. Johnson was most proud of Johnson & Bell’s growth and success as a law firm. In 1975, the firm started with a handful of attorneys and grew to over 100 attorneys. Along the way, the firm developed dozens of highly regarded trial attorneys who themselves have had distinguished careers. Equally important was that the firm provided hundreds of people from all backgrounds with a good job and a way to support themselves and their families.
William V. Johnson is survived by Diane, his wife of 59 years, and four children, as well as 10 grandchildren.