Robert J. Mongeluzzi, the lead lawyer for victims in the Tropicana Casino Resort settlement, is a candid former college athlete with a fierce devotion to his clients and a deep conviction that plain talk, not legal gymnastics, will win over jurors.
The $101 million settlement announced Wednesday in the garage construction collapse that claimed four lives and injured dozens of others in Atlantic City in 2003 was said to be the largest ever in the region. But it wasn’t the first time that Mongeluzzi has tussled with construction firms and others where huge sums were at stake.
Mongeluzzi, 51, a Fordham University law school graduate, has made a career representing the victims of construction accidents.
He says the proliferation of building projects in Philadelphia and Atlantic City has produced a tragic offshoot: a huge number of accidents.
“I think you are seeing it more prevalently in this area. We have been undergoing a construction boom, and Philadelphia has seen a significant amount of new construction,” he said. “With that is the unfortunate fact there are a significant amount of construction injuries.”
In one case filed by Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia jury awarded $75.6 million in 2004 to a road flagman who was rendered paraplegic by a drunken driver. He was also lead counsel for the families of victims, including the families of three women killed in the May 2000 Pier 34 collapse, which resulted in a $29.6 million settlement.
In another case, Mongeluzzi represented a West Point cadet whose neck was broken when a railing collapsed during the 1998 Army-Navy football game at Veterans Stadium. The cadet, who recovered and went on to run in the Boston Marathon, won a $1 million settlement.
Trial lawyers have come under sharp criticism in recent years with a series of unflattering stories on seemingly inexplicable judgments and lawsuits, such as a complaint filed by a McDonald’s customer who claimed an injury from overheated coffee.
But it would seem hard to argue that serious issues were not at stake in the Tropicana garage collapse. The top five floors collapsed as concrete was being poured on the top level of the 10-story structure.
Mongeluzzi, who is a founder of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky in Center City, said the floors were never properly attached to the walls.
Mongeluzzi – a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he played both football and lacrosse – said his focus on construction accidents began serendipitously in the mid-1980s, when he handled several large personal-injury cases. Those cases resulted in further referrals. He now advises insurers and construction companies on how to avoid accidents.
“I challenge them to put me out of business,” he said.
Mongeluzzi, who lives in Merion Station, grew up in a neighborhood of white-and blue-collar workers on the north shore of Long Island, and he says he identifies with the day-to-day challenges faced by construction workers and others employed in trades. He is politically active and was one of a number of area trial lawyers who supported Democrat John Edwards, also a trial lawyer, in the 2004 primaries.
He says that in cases like the Tropicana collapse, plain language is best in the courtroom. “I teach trial advocacy, and one of the things I teach is, you have to be a normal person in the courtroom,” he said. “I don’t use words in a courtroom that you would not use in a bar. People don’t connect with it.”