Robert Mongeluzzi is just back from Augusta, Ga., where he was trying to work out a settlement for a client who had multiple amputations- both legs, right arm, genitals, pelvis, hips, buttocks- as a result of a construction accident.
Mongeluzzi, head of the 21-lawyer Philadelphia firm Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, talks about how his client, Emmanuel Martinez, now has to use a custom-made plastic “bucket” to sit up in a wheelchair. It’s so painful he can only manage four to six hours a day out of bed.
Nonetheless, doctors say Martinez could live a long life. The quality of that life will depend largely on how his lawsuit turns out. “The stress of being a trial lawyer is unbelievable,” Mongeluzzi says. “What you do affects the rest of [the clients’] lives, and their families’ lives. Where they’re going to live. Whether their kids are going to go to college. What sort of life they’re going to have.”
Mongeluzzi, it should be pointed out, is not merely a sufferer of stress. He’s a known provider of it as well specially for defense attorneys who oppose him. During the past quarter-century, Mongeluzzi has carved out a reputation as one of the top construction-accident plaintiffs’ attorneys in the country, and probably the leading lawyer for accidents involving cranes and aerial lifts.
Mongeluzzi has been lead counsel for more than 100 seven-figure and eight-figure verdicts and settlements, including a $29.6 million settlement in the Pier 34 nightclub collapse that killed three women, and $12.7 million for seven of the eight workers injured in the Kimmel Center scaffolding collapse. In 2004, he won one of the biggest verdicts in Pennsylvania history- $75.6 million, including $25 million in punitive damages- for a drunken-driving accident victim who was left a quadriplegic.
His opponents are right to feel stressed.
Mongeluzzi’s office, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the 52nd floor of One Liberty Place, affords sweeping views of downtown Philadelphia and off into New Jersey. He looks down and points to building after building where there have been construction accidents: he earned $1 million for a client there, $2 million there, $3 million there. All his current cases are “catastrophic,” he says: brain damage, paralysis, horrific burns and “many deaths,” including the 2003 Tropicana Casino garage collapse that killed four and injured 21 others in Atlantic City. That trial is scheduled to begin in June.
Talking about his clients and their injuries, he pats his heart, just above the “Mongo” stitched onto his shirt-call it a “Mongogram.” The other kids gave him that nickname in the mixed white-collar and working-class neighborhood in Huntington, Long Island, where Mongeluzzi grew up with family stories of workplace accidents. His great-grandfather was killed when a locomotive engine fell off a hoist. His grandfather was disabled in an accident at his job in a sugar factory. Consequently, Mongeluzzi’s father received public assistance. “My great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father were all affected by workplace injuries,” Mongeluzzi says. “My great-grandparents’ family sued, and had a local lawyer. The railroad company had the highly paid, top-notch guys. My family lost. That’s had an impact on me, that the three generations before me were all affected by workplace injury.”
Mongeluzzi’s father went on to become an executive with a shoe distribution company, and Mongeluzzi himself grew up in a rollicking neighborhood where his best friends were the sons of a cop, a plumber and a butcher. They played whatever sport was in season.
“I was your basic jock,” Mongeluzzi says. When he went out for the Huntington High freshman baseball team, he found himself bored while standing in the outfield, waiting for something to happen. He noticed some other kids on the next field running nonstop, chasing a ball with sticks and knocking each other down. He talked Jim Burke, a buddy on the baseball team, into quitting baseball with him and switching to lacrosse. Mongeluzzi retold the story years later; when he gave Burke’s induction speech at the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Mongeluzzi wasn’t quite that good, but he was decent enough to play for four years at Penn, and compete in top-level club lacrosse for 10 years. He coached club lacrosse for five years, and was twice named the southern division coach of the year. He’s been coaching grade-school and middle-school kids in recent years- the most rewarding time he’s ever had in the game-and still plays during the summer. Packing a solid 188 pounds on his 5-foot-9-incll frame, the 51-year-old Mongeluzzi is still one of the fastest guys on the field. In 2006, he was a defensive mainstay for the USA Geezers, the club that won the over-50 title at the lacrosse world championships in Canada. “I was always hyper-competitive,” he says.
At Fordham Law School, he found that all those years of being coached in sports made it easier for him to absorb criticism from professors. “I was getting screamed at my whole life,” he says. “The best lessons you learn as a lawyer are when things go wrong, and particularly when things begin going wrong in the courtroom. You’ve got to be able to take the hit and keep moving and not crumple and lose focus.”
During law school he worked part time selling women’s shoes at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan, where he learned the importance of establishing credibility with people. “You could be selling shoes, computers, real estate or your lawsuit,” he says. “If they believe you and trust you, and you can relate to them and connect to them, you’ll do well.”
After graduating in 1981 from Fordham, where he was an editor of the law review, Mongeluzzi joined New York firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel. He soon realized he didn’t have the patience to work his way up through a big firm. “There were guys there in their 40s who had never tried a case,” he says.
So he moved to Philadelphia and what was then Daniels Golden & Saltz. One of his first major cases was on behalf of a dock builder injured in a crane accident. He settled the liability portion of the case quickly and favorably, and 10 days later when another dock builder was killed when a crane hit a power line, a member of the dock builders’ union recommended Mongeluzzi. Three months after that, two more dock builders were killed when another crane hit a power line, and he got those cases, too. Mongeluzzi was suddenly an expert in construction accidents. He found himself handling crane cases from across the country, and then a broader range of construction accidents, including electrical accidents. He founded practice sections within the American Association for Justice for both electrical- and crane-accident cases, and wrote the organization’s standard text, Handling Construction Accident Cases.
Besides a telescope for zooming in on the Delaware River boat and barge traffic, Mongeluzzi’s office features bookshelves stocked with an eclectic mix of biographies, histories and books on religion, philosophy, entertainment and rock ‘n’ roll trivia, along with an extensive collection of CDs, many by Bruce Springsteen.
Mongeluzzi pops one into his state-of-the-art sound system and suddenly his office is a small club in Bryn Mawr in February 1975, where the E Street Band, a regional group popular from Philly to the Jersey Shore, is playing one of its last gigs before heading off on a national tour that will land Springsteen on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Mongeluzzi has seen 125 Springsteen concerts. The only time they met, however was a few years ago in Pittsburgh, where Mongeluzzi had scheduled depositions to coincide with a Springsteen concert. Mongeluzzi was taking the hotel elevator down, the door opened, and the Boss stepped in and said hello. Now, in his office, Mongeluzzi points to a limited-edition Springsteen photo. “He’s never lost that connection with the blue-collar world where he grew up,” he says. Mongeluzzi slips a line or two from a Springsteen song into the opening or closing statement of every trial- he recently used ” [Some guys] start dying little by little, piece by piece” from the song “Racing in the Street”- to remind himself of where he is from.
On one shelf in his office is a model of his Ford GT; it’s a muscle car, with a top speed of 205 mph, but Mongeluzzi drives it only about 2,000 miles a year. His everyday cars are a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, a rocket disguised as an SUV, top speed around 170 mph, and a BMW M5, a sports sedan with a top speed of … Mongo isn’t sure yet.
Fast cars aren’t the only outlet for his adrenaline jones. He has also run the New York marathon, he skis 20 dawn-to-dusk days each winter out West-on black double-diamond runs-and drives up into the mountains of Pennsylvania several times a month to plunge down rocky trails on his high-tech mountain bike. “I’m a bit of a risk taker,” he says, “which also plays into being a personal injury lawyer who works on a contingency fee.”
He takes on several dozen cases a year. Seven or eight go to trial, and a couple typically go to verdict. “Ninety-five percent of my cases settle,” Mongeluzzi says. “The problem is, we don’t know the 5 percent we’ll try. So they all have to be prepared.” And the cost of preparing a case can easily run into six figures. He routinely prepares videos and mini-documentaries about his clients and their cases to encourage insurance companies to settle. And he has pioneered the use of videos-particularly videos of defense witnesses during depositions-during his opening statements. For example, the video about Emmanuel Martinez, the young man in Georgia who had the multiple amputations, is a professional, powerful production that shows how physically painful his life is, how difficult it is for his family to take care of him, how he needs so much high-tech equipment and skilled care, and most of all, how much the young man tries to remain positive. It shows he has learned to speak English, he has taught himself to paint, and during the brief daily periods when he is upright in his plastic “bucket,” he volunteers at a local burn unit. “One of the things that we’ve lost in this profession, and one of the things that I think great trial lawyers have, is creativity,” Mongeluzzi says. “It almost gets beaten out of you in law school, and that’s a shame. Go out and take a risk.”
Earlier this year Mongeluzzi represented Andrea Lane, a 42-year-old Philadelphia policewoman who suffered a disabling arm injury while training for bicycle patrol; her bike slipped and she crashed on a city trail that had not been properly maintained.
Mongeluzzi flied a lawsuit against the contracting firm that was responsible for the trail’s upkeep. The turning point in the trial came when testimony from a defense witness, an economist, suggested that Lane’s damages for lost wages should be limited because she would have been eligible to retire from the police force at age 57. Mongeluzzi began his cross-examination abruptly.
“Who’s Joey?” he asked the economist.
The economist was mystified.
Mongeluzzi went over to the gallery behind his client, reached into the audience and patted the head of Joey, 9, the youngest of Lane’s Six children. Then Mongeluzzi asked the economist how old Lane would be when Joey graduates from college. Probably 56. Did it seem like Lane would be able to retire at age 57, when she was just starting to pay back six sets of college loans?
The jury deliberated two and a half hours and came back with a verdict of $3.5 million. The other lawyers in Mongeluzzi’s office now call it the “Who’s Joey?” cross-examination.
Mongeluzzi can tick off a long list of great thrills he’s had in life, playing lacrosse, launching himself down a mountain of shining, untouched powder, ripping down a steep rocky hill on a mountain bike. “But I don’t think there’s a bigger thrill than cross-examining someone in a courtroom,” he says.
Mongeluzzi has served on various bar committees and often teaches trial techniques to other lawyers, but he also occasionally sticks his head into the lion’s den, speaking to those in the insurance and construction industries. “Put me out of business,” he challenges them.
If contractors and employers provided proper safeguards for their workers, he insists, he’d be happy to give up all those contingency fees and find another way to make a living as a lawyer.
“I wouldn’t have to sit across from a widow ever again.”