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Matter of Estate of Travarelli

August 7, 1995

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF DONALD TRAVARELLI; MARYBETH TRAVARELLI, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
MARESSA, GOLDSTEIN, BIRSNER, PATTERSON, DRINKWATER & ODDO, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Burlington County.

Approved for Publication August 7, 1995.

Before Judges Michels, Stern and Humphreys. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.j.a.d.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michels

The opinion of the court was delivered by MICHELS, P.J.A.D.

Petitioner MaryBeth Travarelli appeals from: (1) an order of the Chancery Division denying her motion for the return or refund of attorney fees paid to respondent Maressa, Goldstein, Birsner, Patterson, Drinkwater & Oddo (the Maressa law firm) in connection with the wrongful death of her husband, Donald Travarelli (decedent), and (2) an order denying her motion for reconsideration.

Petitioner is the widow of decedent, who died on November 12, 1989, while on a hunting and fishing trip in Alaska. Shortly after her husband's death, petitioner retained the Maressa law firm to represent her in a wrongful death action. Pursuant to the contingent fee agreement executed by petitioner on behalf of decedent, the Maressa law firm agreed to represent petitioner in a wrongful death action against Paul Reynolds, a trip guide, and others believed to be responsible for decedent's death. Decedent was also survived by his four children. In his will, he named Patricia Travarelli, his former wife and mother of the four children, as the executrix of his estate. Patricia Travarelli retained Jon C. Sirlin & Associates (the Sirlin law firm) to pursue a wrongful death claim against Reynolds and others believed to be responsible for decedent's death.

Although the record is not entirely clear, it appears that after petitioner signed the contingent fee agreement, the Maressa law firm investigated the wrongful death claim, negotiated with the Northland Insurance Company, which insured Reynolds, and obtained a $10,000 advance. Thereafter, Patricia Travarelli notified the Maressa law firm that she was also pursuing a wrongful death claim on behalf of decedent's estate and had negotiated a full settlement of the claim for $592,000. On July 26, 1990, because petitioner and Patricia Travarelli were both asserting claims on behalf of decedent's estate, the trial court ordered petitioner to show cause as to why: (1) Patricia Travarelli, as personal representative of the estate, should not accept the proceeds of the $592,000 settlement being offered by Northland Insurance Company (representing all but $8,000 of the available coverage), with said funds to be deposited in court or into an escrow account, and (2) petitioner should not be temporarily and permanently enjoined from initiating a proceeding in Alaska to become special administrator. Following argument, the trial court ordered that Patricia Travarelli be the sole person, as executrix and pursuant to her fiduciary responsibilities, to accept or reject the offer of $592,000 on behalf of decedent's estate, and permanently enjoined petitioner from initiating a proceeding to become special administrator or otherwise interfering with the acceptance of the settlement. This order was not appealed.

Patricia Travarelli accepted the $592,000 in settlement of the wrongful death claim. On September 28, 1990, the trial court approved the allocation of the proceeds of the settlement. After deducting the $140,000 contingent fee paid to the Sirlin law firm based on the $592,000 settlement, the trial court approved the following allocation of the $452,000 net proceeds of the settlement which was negotiated with petitioner:

a. The sum of Two Hundred Seven Thousand ($207,000) Dollars, plus a pro rata share of accrued interest be disbursed to MaryBeth Travarelli, the widow of the late Donald Travarelli.

b. The sum of Sixty-One Thousand Two Hundred Fifty ($61,250) Dollars, plus a pro rata share of accrued interest to be disbursed to Carlo Travarelli, the minor son of the late Donald Travarelli.

c. The sum of Sixty-One Thousand Two Hundred Fifty ($61,250) Dollars, plus a pro rata share of accrued interest to be disbursed to Angela Karanzalis, the daughter of the late Donald Travarelli.

d. The sum of Sixty-One Thousand Two Hundred Fifty ($61,250) Dollars, plus a pro rata share of accrued interest to be disbursed to Maria Travarelli, the daughter of the late Donald Travarelli.

e. The sum of Sixty-One Thousand Two Hundred Fifty ($61,250) Dollars, plus a pro rata share of accrued interest to be disbursed to Donna Travarelli, the daughter of the late Donald Travarelli.

In addition to the $140,000 paid to the Sirlin law firm, the Maressa law firm charged petitioner a fee of $51,634.06, an amount which represented 25% of her $207,000 allocated share of the settlement. Thus, the total fees paid to the Sirlin and Maressa law firms from the $592,000 settlement of the wrongful death claim were $191,634.06. Petitioner, in addition to paying her pro rata share of the fee paid to the Sirlin law firm of ...


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