THE STAR-LEDGER - MARCH 11, 1994
THOMM'S OWNER GAINS $1.2 MILLION SETTLEMENT Restaurateur wins insurance suit after defeating arson allegation.
By Kinga Borondy
Nearly nine years after his landmark Newark eatery burned down, the owner of Thomm's Restaurant was awarded $1.2 million in an insurance settlement.
The civil case involving Thomas Pannullo, who will be 70-years-old nest week, against his insurance company was settled this week before Superior Court Judge Leo Yanoff, sitting in Essex County.
"Justice is just as sweet at age 70" said Glenn A. Bergenfield, the Princeton attorney who has represented Pannullo since 1990 and guided him through a civil trial, an appearance before the appellate division of the courts and Yanoff.
"He was 61 years old when the fire happened and he was wrongly accused of arson." Bergenfield said. "But he stood up to everybody and he was vindicated."
The restaurant where political careers started, where city officials held their fund-raisers and local residents celebrated their weddings, communions and Easter dinners, burned down on July 12, 1985.
That's when the struggle between Pannullo and his insurance carrier, Balboa Insurance Co., started.
The convoluted case saw Pannullo filling suit against his insurance carrier, the carrier counter-suing, an aborted civil trial followed by a full civil trial and a hearing before the Appellate Division of the state Superior Court.
When the carrier refused to pay the full $1.7 million claim, paying only the $440,000 mortgage owed to a local bank, Pannullo field suit against Balboa.
The insurance company retaliated; claiming the owner had purposely burned the restaurant to the ground and defrauded it of a $440,000 mortgage payment.
Throughout the long legal proceedings, Bergenfield said, he had no trouble finding people willing to testify on behalf of Pannullo.
"In order to get character witnesses for him we'd walk down the hall of the Essex County Court House and people would come up to greet him." Bergenfield said of the second trial, which was decided in his client's favor.
"People would shake his hand, as how he was, and we'd take them into the courtroom, and put them on the stand," Bergenfield said, explaining that Pannullo knew everybody in the courthouse, even half the sitting judges.
At one point during the trial, Superior Court Judge Doug Hague advised Pannullo to settle the case for what the insurance company was offering.
"Your risks are very high," said Hague, according to the court transcript. "You say you're going to do this, but unless you can Jesus Christ you ain't going to win this case and that's the bottom line."
Pannullo refused to settle, claiming that the money was not a motivating factor---rather it was a question of his reputation that kept him going.
"Your Honor, it's not a question of $100,000. It's a question of my honesty, my integrity, my whole bunch of friends," Pannullo told the judge, according to the transcript.
He told the judge he did not want to "die from horror."
Once the jury found in Pannullo's favor, the restaurateur tried for a second hearing to recoup what was outstanding of the $1.7 million coverage he had paid for. The insurance carrier meanwhile, appealed the jury verdict.
In November of last year, the appellate division ruled against the insurance carrier on the arson issue, finding the question had been decided at the jury trial.
A new hearing had been set before Judge Yanoff and the case was settled Monday, Bergenfield said.
Pannullo, who once owned "The Place" for political events, now works as a host at a restaurant in the Bridgewater Mall to make ends meet.
During the heyday of Thomm's Restaurant in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, nearly every political committee and caucus, social and civic organization held its fund-raisers, gala balls and other events at the restaurant.
"It was the 'The Place' for political events," said Newark City Councilman Hank Martinez. He said the first political event he ever attended was held at the huge restaurant and banquet hall that once graced the corner of Park and Mount Prospect avenues.
North Ward Councilman Anthony Carrino said his political career started in the restaurant following a series of fund-raisers police held for a member of the department whose daughter was suffering from an illness.
"We had three or four affairs there, during affairs there was talk and that's how I decided to run for office," Carrino said. "Thomm's holds great memories.
Martinez was cop on the beat in the North Ward when Thomm's was at the height of its popularity.
"I remember people would leave Sacred Heart Church on Sundays and walk over to Thomm's for Sunday dinner," Martinez said. "No matter your ethnic background, everybody went to Thomm's--Irish, Italian. The family were such friendly people, they made you feel warm and welcome."