John Davis (J.D.) Lee

John Davis (J.D.) Lee, age 91, passed away on Sept. 7, 2020.

J.D. was born at home with a midwife to Emma Hunt Lee and Clement Lee on May 3, 1929, in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. He grew up working on the family farm with his seven siblings.

At age 17, J.D. enlisted in the Army to join his brothers fighting in World War II. After the war, thanks to the G.I. Bill, J.D. attended Stetson University in Florida, and later graduated from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) where he was student body president and from the University of Tennessee (UT) College of Law where he was president of the Student Bar Association.

J.D. liked to joke, “I graduated second in my law school class… of three students!”

In 1954, while still a law student, J.D. was elected as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention.

Always a hard worker and someone who genuinely liked people, J.D. opened a law office in Madisonville and made a success of himself, representing people injured or killed due to the negligence of others. Early in his career, J.D. successfully sued railroad companies on behalf of people injured or killed by trains. As early as the 1960s, J.D. was a pioneer in bringing lawsuits against big tobacco companies on behalf of people injured or killed by cigarette smoke. He developed a national reputation as a skillful litigator who won record-setting verdicts for his clients in medical malpractice and product liability cases.

In 1978, J.D. ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. A natural leader, J.D. was president of the 1977 Tennessee Constitutional Convention, president of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association (TTLA), president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), and a founder/president of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a public interest law firm that fights for consumer rights and environmental protections.

J.D. was part of a group of lawyers who represent the victims in lawsuits against Iran and others who assisted the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

J.D. was chosen as a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an association of the 100 best trial lawyers in America. He received many professional awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from TTLA and the Champion of Justice Award from ATLA.

In 1961, J.D. married Sarah Snively, a “Vol Beauty” and National Merit Scholar from Chicago, who graduated from UT, and they raised their children John, David and Allison in Madisonville.

In 1992, J.D. married Patrice Bell, also a ETSU graduate and a lawyer, and they raised their son James in Knoxville.

J.D. loved being a lawyer for over 50 years and was proud of his family of attorneys who worked alongside him: his son David, his wife Patrice and his niece Sharon Lee, a Tennessee Supreme Court Justice.

Always adventurous, J.D. was an accomplished pilot, a horseman, and an avid outdoorsman, who began running marathons in his 70s. At age 70, he hiked the Appalachian Trail straight through from Georgia to Maine, and to the very end of his life, he was planning his next big hike.

J.D. lived life to the fullest and will be missed by his friends and family.

He was preceded in death by: his brothers, Charles Lee and Norman Lee; and his sisters, Jane Lee, Louise Lee and Sue McWaters.

He is survived by: his brother, Ernest Lee, of Jonesboro, Georgia;

His sister, Dr. Kathern Plenge, of Paradise Valley, Arizona;

His sons, John Lee, David Lee and James Lee, of Knoxville;

His daughters, Allison Lee, of Tucson, Arizona, and Diane Kingery-Roth, of Palm Springs, California;

His grandson, Alexander Lee, of Knoxville;

His granddaughters, Fiona van Haren and Nadine van Haren, of Tucson, Arizona.

J.D. struggled with dementia in his last years but received help from many Good Samaritans to whom J.D.’s younger self would say, “Thank you!”

A family memorial service will be held at First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville. See the Click Funeral Home website at for information about how to view the recorded service online.

J.D.’s family requests that, instead of sending flowers, folks make a donation to the J.D. Lee Scholarship Fund for a UT College of Law student c/o Tennessee Judicial Conference Foundation, 629 Woodland Street, Nashville, TN 37206.

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