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Corcoran v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp.

December 22, 2003

MARY CORCORAN, SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL CORCORAN, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF/RESPONDENT-APPELLANT,
v.
NORTHEAST ILLINOIS REGIONAL COMMUTER RAILROAD CORPORATION, INDIVIDUALLY AND D/B/A METRA, A CORPORATION, AND UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, A CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS (JOSEPH DOWD, PETITIONER-APPELLEE).



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County Honorable David Donnersberger, Judge Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McNULTY

UNPUBLISHED

After her husband died in a train accident, Mary Corcoran received a settlement offer from the railroads involved in the accident. She talked to Joseph Dowd, a lawyer, who referred her to Corboy & Demetrio (C&D). She signed a contingent fee contract with C&D. The contract included a referral fee for Dowd. C&D eventually advised Mary to accept the offer she received from the railroads. When Mary settled C&D waived its fee, but Dowd demanded his referral fee. The trial court awarded Dowd the fee. Mary now appeals. Because we find no abuse of discretion, we affirm.

On October 11, 1998, a Metra train struck and killed Michael Corcoran while he was working for Union Pacific Railroad on tracks in Chicago. Metra and Union Pacific offered Michael's widow, Mary, some money not to sue, and she negotiated with the railroads on her own. Mary eventually elicited an offer of $1,400,000 to settle the case.

In May 1999 a friend introduced Mary to Dowd. The friend had already told Dowd about the accident and Mary's negotiations. Dowd told Mary she needed a lawyer. She said she wanted to hire C&D because her father knew Corboy from high school. Dowd offered to take Mary to C&D's office. At the office, on May 19, 1999, Mary signed a contract for C&D to handle the case. The contract provides:

"I agree to pay CORBOY & DEMETRIO as compensation for its services and assign to it twenty-five percent of any sum recovered from settlement or judgment.

***

I fully understand, agree and consent to the fact that Joseph P. Dowd, the referring lawyer, will receive 40% of the attorneys' fees and that Joseph P. Dowd has agreed to assume the same legal responsibility for the performance of the legal services as CORBOY & DEMETRIO assumes on my behalf."

David Wise of C&D filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the railroads in August 1999. Wise moved for appointment of Mary as special administrator of Michael's estate, after obtaining consents from both of Michael and Mary's children. Attorneys from C&D sent notices to the railroads for depositions of several witnesses. Wise filed an answer to the railroads' affirmative defenses and a response to the railroads' interrogatories and requests for production. Attorneys from C&D met with Mary on several occasions to discuss the status of the case.

No depositions ever took place. In April 2001 Wise recommended settling the case for the $1,400,000 offer. Mary accepted the advice. The court approved the settlement in December 2001. Because C&D did not improve on the settlement offer Mary obtained without its help, C&D waived its fee.

Dowd petitioned for an award of 40% of C&D's contractual fee of 25% of the settlement. Mary answered that the fee was unreasonable because Dowd had no contract with Mary and did no work on the case.

The trial court found that Dowd met the requirements of the Rules of Professional Conduct for charging a referral fee. In the written order the court added:

"When the case settled, Plaintiff became obligated to pay 25% of the settlement in fees with 40% of that 25% going to Dowd. The fact that Corboy & Demetrio declined to collect the owed fee does not lead to the conclusion that Dowd may not collect a fee.

The only basis for denying the $140,000 fee to Dowd would be if Corboy & Demetrio's 25% contingency ...


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