A 17-year-old girl was catastrophically burned in 2014 when a propane tank exploded on a food truck in North Philadelphia, where she washed dishes and cooked. When the case was settled, her share — about $70 million — was called the largest individual pre-verdict settlement in Pennsylvania history.
Now the only thing still smoldering involves the fight over the $11 million referral fee. The victim’s lawyer said it’s his, while his old firm says it’s theirs. The two have been duking it out in court for 17 months.
On one side is Richard DeMarco, a Philadelphia zoning lawyer who filed suit in Philadelphia seeking the fee because he connected the victim, Zoila Santos-Gabriel, to the legal team that eventually won the big settlement.
DeMarco notes that Zoila lived in the city, and just about everything involving the case, from the propane blast to the lawsuits spawned by it, happened in Philadelphia. So, he says, his complaint over the fee should be litigated in city courts.
Not so fast, says his former law firm Elliott Greenleaf, which claims its onetime partner “purposely concealed” his relationship with Zoila when he was leaving the firm in 2016 and is now interfering with the firm’s ability to collect the supersized fee.
The “referral fee” was negotiated at the Elliott Greenleaf headquarters in Blue Bell. And DeMarco, though based out of Two Liberty Place in Center City, had a suburban “floater” office and did not work exclusively in Philadelphia. So the firm says the case should be litigated in Montgomery County.
Disputes over referral fees, a shadowy area of the legal industry in which experts say Pennsylvania has looser rules than other states, are typically settled. But “lawyers get greedy,” said Seton Hall University law school professor Michael Ambrosio, speaking generally.
This saga began on the hot summer evening of July 1, 2015, when a leaking propane tank on the La Parrillada Chapina food truck exploded in a fire ball on the 300 block of West Wyoming Avenue, killing business owner Olga Galdamez and her daughter, Jaylin, 17, and injuring 11 people, including Zoila.
The subsequent fee-related litigation involved two of the city’s biggest legal names. Lawyer Robert “Mongo” Mongeluzzi’s firm negotiated the big settlement while lawyer George Bochetto represents DeMarco. Bochetto and Elliott Greenleaf did not respond for comment Monday. A lawyer with Mongeluzzi’s firm declined to comment.
Not a big plaintiffs firm, Elliott Greenleaf referred Zoila’s case to Mongeluzzi’s firm about five weeks after the explosion, court papers show. The deal worked this way: Saltz Mongelluzi Barrett & Bendensky worked for a 40 percent contingency fee from Zoila, while agreeing to pay 40 percent of the contingency fee as a referral fee.
"The purpose [of a referral] is to get someone who can handle the case because they have the staff or expertise,” Ambrosio said. “The client gets a better lawyer, a specialist, and they don’t have to pay more.”
At first the truck explosion looked like a dud for lawyers and victims: There were no apparent deep pockets to pay damages. But plaintiffs lawyers soon learned that a 100-pound propane tank on La Parrillada Chapina truck was manufactured in the 1940s, according to court documents in Philadelphia.
U-Haul Co. of Pennsylvania and the former general manager of its Feltonville operation later pleaded guilty in federal court to two counts each of violating hazardous-materials training regulations related to the food-truck explosion.
In April 2018, Mongelluzi informed DeMarco and Elliott Greenleaf of the $160 million settlement, which was split among injured victims and the Galdamez estate, as well as lawyers. Zoila, who received about $70 million, has undergone skin-grafting procedures and suffered neurological injuries, post-traumatic disorder, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
After the settlement and as the fee dispute escalated, Mongelluzzi parked the $11 million now up for grabs in escrow.
Complicating the dispute case has been DeMarco’s status at Elliott Greenleaf. DeMarco had been “of counsel” at Elliott Greenleaf when he signed Zoila and was promoted to partner at the firm in 2015. But DeMarco left the Blue Bell group in late 2016 and joined the city firm Lauletta Birnbaum, taking Zoila with him as a client. Elliott Greenleaf says the 2014 referral agreement with the firm still stands.
"It’s a big case. Important for public policy,” said Ambrosio. “Is there a residual right for the firm to take a portion of the [referral] fees even though they did no work on it?” he asked.
The fight over the referral fee so far has largely focused on where the case should be heard.
And while DeMarco has ties to Philadelphia, Elliot Greenleaf has deep ties to Montgomery County. Its attorneys include Stuart J. Greenleaf, the former state senator from Montgomery County and chairman of the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee, and his son, Stuart J. Greenleaf Jr. The brother of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), Patrick Casey, is also an attorney at the firm. Former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor was an Elliott Greenleaf attorney but is no longer.
Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Garrett D. Page last year agreed with Elliott Greenleaf that the litigation should be “coordinated” in Montgomery County. DeMarco appealed. In early 2019, a Pennsylvania Superior Court decision upheld Page’s decision, though DeMarco has filed other objections.
In a May 1, 2018, email, Bochetto told Elliott Greenleaf partner Fred Santorelli that DeMarco had tried to settle the case but Elliott Greenleaf has said “the entire fee … belongs to the … firm.”
DeMarco claims in court that Elliott Greenleaf is entitled only to the $33,000, or the direct legal services it provided to Zoila when it represented her.