Judge awards $11 million contested fee to law firm.

A Montgomery County judge has ruled that Blue Bell law firm Elliott Greenleaf is entitled to the entire $11.3 million legal referral fee for a 17-year-old girl who was horribly burned in a food truck explosion in North Philadelphia in 2014.

Zoila Santos, a former cook in the La Parrillada Chapina food truck and one of 13 individuals who were killed or injured in the explosion, settled her case with U-Haul for $71 million in 2018.

It was part of one of the biggest pretrial settlements in Pennsylvania’s history, and the $11.3 million referral fee came out of it. Attorneys, or firms, are paid the fees for referring business to other attorneys who do the work.

Attorney Richard DeMarco has been engaged in a legal battle for what he claims is his share of the $11.3 million since 2018.

Judge Richard P. Haaz said in his Sept. 2 decision that an email between Elliott Greenleaf and Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, a personal injury law firm, was an enforceable contract and that DeMarco, a former Elliott Greenleaf attorney, did not have an agreement in writing to be paid part of the referral fee.

Haaz wrote that at the time of the contract in 2014 DeMarco was a full-time employee at Elliott Greenleaf and “was not permitted to have a side practice and he agreed to devote his full-time efforts to the firm.”

DeMarco, an attorney specializing in zoning issues, signed Santos as a client after the explosion while at Elliott Greenleaf. DeMarco said that he retained her as a client when he moved to a new firm and she did not want him cut out of the referral fee.

The referral fee deal worked this way: Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky worked for a 40% contingency fee if Santos settled or won at trial, while agreeing to pay 40% of this contingency fee as a referral fee — which, because of the high-dollar settlement, amounted to $11.3 million.

Elliott Greenleaf’s attorney, Joseph Walsh, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

DeMarco’s attorney, George Bochetto, said on Friday that DeMarco was seeking a new trial. Bochetto said that the judge found the referral agreement was a contract based on an August 2014 email, even though no lawyer spoke to Santos about it until three months later, in November.

Bochetto said that Pennsylvania’s professional rules of conduct say that legal-services clients “have the opportunity to know who will share in a legal fee in their personal injury case so that they may object if they so choose.”


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