Marvin Ellin, attorney dubbed 'maestro of malpractice torts,' dies

Marvin Ellin gained fame in 1988 working with parents whose daughter had been switched at birth.

Marvin Ellin, a retired Baltimore attorney once described as the "maestro of medical malpractice torts," died of a respiratory ailment Jan. 8 at Greenfield Senior Living in Cockeysville. The former Glyndon resident was 92.

"Marvin was the dean of the medical malpractice bar," said retired Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. "He was a hard-charger and a straight-ahead guy. There was nothing sneaky in his trial strategy. We all had respect for him."

Born in Baltimore and raised on Boarman Avenue, he was the son of Morris Ellin, a sales manager, and Goldie Ellin, who were Russian immigrants. He attended city public schools.

"I was one of those teenagers who didn't know what I wanted to do," he said in a 1980 Baltimore Sun profile. "But I did have an interest in radio at an early age."

While barely in his 20s, he landed a jazz show on WCAO radio. He also appeared at the Hippodrome, where he introduced musical acts. In the early days of local television, he appeared on WMAR-TV, where he was the host of a show called "Block Party." When contestants answered questions correctly, a prize was sent to each household on a preselected block.

He later credited a friend and physician, Dr. Bud Banfield, with urging him to go to law school to become a trial lawyer. In interviews, Mr. Ellin said he never lost his taste for showmanship.

While taking a train to Harrisburg, Pa., he met his future wife — he spilled milk on Stella Granto, who at the time was enrolled at the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. They courted, and he played "Stella By Starlight" on WCAO to woo her.

In 1953, he graduated from the old Mount Vernon School of Law and became a junior partner to Baltimore attorney Thomas Tingley, who worked in interstate commerce and public service law. He initially represented bus companies before the Interstate Commerce Commission. When Mr. Tingley died, Mr. Ellin took over the practice.

Mr. Ellin said in the 1990 interview that he began getting more accident referrals.

"Somebody's nephew had an accident or somebody fell, or some type of catastrophe," he recalled. "That was my first introduction into the medical aspects of law because, of necessity, these injuries involved collecting hospital records and contacting the physicians and discussing the impact of the injury."

He gradually made medical cases a specialty.

"He was very competent but not very liked, especially in the Baltimore medical community," said Baltimore attorney Herbert Garten, of the firm of Fedder and Garten. "It was obvious the juries did like him, and he performed a valuable service on behalf of his clients. He was a pioneer in the field."

Mr. Ellin initially worked in the Munsey Building adjacent to the downtown courthouse and later occupied the second floor of the St. Paul at Chase apartment building in Mount Vernon. At one time, he had 35 people on his payroll.

"He had a commanding presence and powerful oratory style," said grandson David C. Ellin of Finksburg, an attorney who trained with Mr. Ellin. "My grandfather was blessed with quick wit, charm, tenacity and mental agility."

In 1960 he took the case of an Army captain's wife who died after being given 100 times the normal radiation to treat breast cancer in a military hospital.

"The medical research and the legal preparation for the case fascinated the young lawyer," said a 1988 Sun article. "His settlement with the U.S. government attracted a growing number of referrals."

Years later, Mr. Ellin was described in The Sun as "the maestro of medical malpractice torts." He gained worldwide attention in 1988 by working with Ernest and Regina Twigg, who came to Baltimore with their daughter, Arlena, who had a rare disease. The girl died and blood tests later revealed she was not the couple's biological daughter. Mr. Ellin determined she had been switched at birth in a rural Florida hospital, and he sought $100 million in damages.

"Telephone calls from the world press flooded Marvin Ellin's office. ... '60 Minutes' and '20/20' producers on the line, national newspapers clamoring for interviews, a team from Le Figaro magazine camping in his office. And 'Donahue' called four times," said a Sun article about Mr. Ellin's role in the case. He later withdrew from the case, citing personal reasons.

Judge Murphy recalled that Mr. Ellin successfully brought a defamation suit against a popular 1970s radio personality, Johnny Walker. Mr. Walker made an unflattering remark about another media personality, Dennis Holly, on the air. Mr. Walker said it was done in fun.

"Marvin took on the defamation case and won," said Judge Murphy. "Obviously, what Johnny Walker said was not funny to Dennis Holly and it was not funny to the jury. It was a case that established a precedent."

Mr. Ellin lived on a Baltimore County horse farm on Longnecker Road. He collected a wide range of records and occasionally traveled to Europe, where he consulted medical experts. He rose early in the morning and did a set of exercises, and he expected his office staff to be in their places and working by 8:30 a.m.

His wife taught him Italian cooking and he was proud of his marinara sauce. He felt his cooking was better than a restaurant could make. He kept a large wine cellar and said he drank red wine "as a food."

Family members said he stopped practicing law when his hearing gave out at age 86.

"My grandfather did things his way. He was an imperfect perfectionist," said his grandson. "He didn't care if he got you upset. He wasn't there to make friends."

Services were private.

In addition to his grandson, survivors include two sons, Morris Ellin of Reisterstown and Raymond Ellin of Pikesville; three other grandsons; and four great-grandchildren. His wife of 47 years died in 1994.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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