Row houses in Philadelphia, PA

Experts Affix Blame in Philadelphia Building Collapse

Written on Tuesday, December 13th, 2016 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: ExpertWitness

Six people were killed and thirteen injured after the unbraced wall of a four-story building that was being demolished in Philadelphia collapsed, burying a neighboring single-story Salvation Army thrift store in rubble. One of the survivors was trapped for more than half a day before rescuers could reach her. Both of her legs were amputated at the hip.

Injury victims and relatives of the deceased sued a number of defendants who were allegedly responsible for the tragic event. A lengthy trial is well underway. Several expert witnesses have already testified for the plaintiffs and for the primary defendant.

Defendants in the Lawsuit

Defendants in the consolidated lawsuits include the demolition contractor, the excavator, and the architect who was hired to oversee the demolition. The primary defendant is real estate speculator Richard Basciano, whose company, STB Investments Corp., owned the building that was being razed. The plaintiffs also sued the Salvation Army for failing to protect employees and customers from a known danger.

Sean Benschop, the excavator, and Griffin Campbell, the contractor, were both convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Although they are defendants in the lawsuit, they probably have no way to pay any judgment that is entered against them. Another defendant, architect Plato Marinakos Jr., apparently had no insurance coverage that would pay any judgment that the jury might enter against him.

Claims and Defenses

The primary claim against Basciano is that he was negligent in hiring Marinakos and in failing to realize that Campbell was not qualified to handle the demolition. The plaintiffs have offered evidence that a key employee of Basiano knew that the demolition might endanger lives and property but allowed the project to continue.

The plaintiffs claim that Basciano’s aide warned the Salvation Army that its store might be placed at risk by the demolition. They allege that the Salvation Army ignored the warning because they thought it was a ploy by Basciano to induce the Salvation Army to swap its property for another Basciano property.

The Salvation Army rejected the proposed swap because it did not like the location of the property that Basciano offered. Bad blood became evident when Basciano’s property manager referred to the Salvation Army as “that half-baked charity.”

Basciano is basing his defense on expert testimony that the fault rests with the contractor who was responsible for the demolition and with the architect who was hired to oversee it.

Plaintiffs’ Forensic Construction Expert

The injury victims allege that Basciano and his property manager were negligent because neither Marinakos nor Campbell had prior experience bringing down a multistory commercial building. In support of that claim, the plaintiffs presented the expert testimony of Stephen A. Estrin, a former contractor who now analyzes building failures as a forensic construction consultant.

Estrin testified that Campbell was “totally incompetent and inexperienced.” Estrin also testified that Basciano and his property manager failed to adhere to industry standards when they did “no due-diligence research” before hiring Campbell. Estrin said that Basciano, relying solely on Marinakos’ recommendation, hired Campbell “despite the fact that Campbell had no city contractor’s license and had demolished just two burned-out rowhouses.”

Marinakos knew that Campbell was unlicensed. He also knew that Campbell had no insurance coverage for demolition, had no business account, and cashed his $25,000 deposit at a check cashing agency. Estrin told the jury that Basciano should have learned all of those facts and, had he done so, would have realized that Campbell lacked the credentials for a multistory demolition project. According to Estrin, Basciano cannot absolve himself of responsibility by blaming Marinakos for hiring an inept contractor.

Estrin testified for the plaintiffs before being cross-examined by lawyers for each of the defendants. He was on the witness stand for three full days.

Plaintiffs’ Retail Expert

The plaintiffs also presented the expert testimony of Alex J. Balian, the owner of a consulting firm specializing in retail management and store safety. He testified that the Salvation Army contributed to the casualties by failing to protect their customers from harm.

Balian faulted the Salvation Army for failing to investigate Basciano’s warnings of danger. He also noted that the store manager was aware of falling debris before the collapse and knew that no scaffolding had been installed to protect the store. Balian testified that the Salvation Army should have closed the store to protect its customers once the danger became apparent.

Store employees testified that they were never informed of the danger warnings that the Salvation Army received from Basciano’s employee. They also testified that the Salvation Army has a strict chain of command and that they were not authorized to close the store on their own initiative.

Defense Challenges

Lawyers for the defendants vigorously challenged the opinions of Balian and Estrin, claiming that they were rendering personal opinions as opposed to testifying about industry standards. In both cases, the judge ruled that the opinions were admissible as expert testimony.

Basciano’s Experts

Geoffrey N. Irvine testified for the defense as an expert in property management. He opined that Basciano and his property manager followed customary practices in the real estate industry by hiring Marinakos to monitor the project and to recommend the contractor to demolish the building.

Another expert testifying for Basciano, Philadelphia architect Robert H. Henderson, told the jury that Marinakos’ work on the project was “deceitful and leaning toward fraud.” Henderson’s testimony supported Basciano’s attempt to shift the blame for the building’s collapse to Marinakos. Henderson also suggested that Marinakos “rigged” the bids so that Campbell would get the demolition contract.

Basciano’s attempt to portray himself as the victim of inept or corrupt hired help might be undermined by evidence that his top aide sent several emails to the Salvation Army warning them that their building was in danger. The aide has testified that he was unaware of any actual danger but sent those emails as part of a strategy to induce the Salvation Army to swap its building for a different property.

The trial, one of the longest in Philadelphia history, has already taken weeks. The case will probably not reach the jury before January.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.