After weeks of jury selection and more than three years of waiting, the victims of the 2013 building collapse at 22nd and Market streets in Philadelphia are finally staring down what they’ve been searching for: Answers, and perhaps, compensation.
The civil trial in the Market Street collapse case is moving forward this week. The case’s weeks-long, secretive jury selection process wrapped up last week, seating 12 jurors and eight alternates out of a pool of more than 100, according to the Associated Press. Opening statements begin today, and lawyers who are now under a gag order say the trial could take several months.
On June 5, 2013, a four-story, free-standing wall fell while it was under demolition, crushing a Salvation Army thrift store, killing six people and leaving more than a dozen severely injured. Two men — a demolition contractor and an excavator — were criminally charged and are serving prison time. Many lawsuits were filed that have since been consolidated. And the city still, in many ways, has more questions than answers about what happened.
The plaintiffs in the case — the families of six people killed and others who were injured — are seeking damages from multiple parties, including the building owner, the person who designed the structure and the Salvation Army. If the jury decides any of the parties are liable, the trial will move into a second phase where those jurors would determine the amount to award the defendants.
But in addition to giving the victims and their families an opportunity to seek financial compensation following the deadly collapse, it could also serve as the first and only true and full public airing of the events that led to the June 5, 2013 collapse that left six people dead.
“It’s an opportunity we have yet to experience, as the city of Philadelphia, to have everything brought before the jury and everybody’s conduct gets evaluated,” Andrew Stern, a lawyer for one of the injured victims, said in court, according to The Inquirer. “The citizens will get an answer to what happened and why it happened on a day that will live in infamy in this city.”
What happened that day
On that day in 2013, a vacant building near the intersection of 22nd and Market streets in Center City was being demolished, occasionally shedding bricks and parts of the building onto the ground and the sidewalk below.
At about 10:45 a.m. on that Wednesday morning, what was left of the four-story building collapsed onto the Salvation Army store below. Six people were killed and others were trapped in the rubble, some for more than 12 hours. Among those killed were two workers, a student, a nurse, a retiree and an audio engineer. The scene of the collapse was described as a “war zone.”
“You felt it shake,” witness Jordan McLaughlin told KYW. “There was people that actually fell over. People started screaming, they ran across the street. There was people inside the building, you heard them scream.”
Questions were being asked almost immediately. Whose job was it to make sure this didn’t happen?
Philadelphia attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, who calls himself “Mr. Collapse King,” represents the families of three people killed in the collapse and six others who were injured. He told Billy Penn last year that demolition is one of the times when building collapses are most likely to occur. But, he says, these accidents are preventable if building owners properly inspect their own structures before demolition.
The plaintiffs and what they’re seeking
Among the plaintiffs are the estates of the six people killed: Kimberly Finnegan, Anne Bryan, Borbor Davis, Juanita Harmon, Mary Simpson and Roseline Conteh. Eleven people who were injured during the collapse are also plaintiffs in the case. They are: Margarita Agosta, Shirley Ball, Linda Bell, Betty Brown, Bernard DiTomo, Rodney Geddis, Felicia Hill, Rosemary Kreutzberg, Jennifer Reynolds, Richard Stasiorowski and Nadine White.
The plaintiffs — and their massive team of lawyers, who came together after the case was consolidated in December 2013 — want the jury to find negligence, specifically on the part of all or any of the six defendants. If any of those defendants are found liable, the case will move into a second phase when the jury will determine how much to award each plaintiff in terms of damages.
The defendant who will likely get the most attention is New York developer Richard Basciano, the building owner who’s somehow managed to largely stay out of the public since 2013, avoided criminal charges in the case and for years didn’t answer key questions about who knew what about the status of the collapsing structure.
Also among the defendants:
- Architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr., who was supposed to keep tabs on the demolition
- The Salvation Army
- Griffin Campbell, the demolition contractor
- Sean Benschop, who was operating the excavator
What you’ll notice is that the city is not a defendant in this case, despite facing massive public scrutiny following the collapse. The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, the taxpayer-funded agency that was supposed to keep tabs on demolition of the building, says it’s since changed some of its policies to better keep tabs on buildings being demolished.
State law dictates that the city can’t be sued for the incident unless someone working for the city actively caused the collapse. There’s no evidence that happened.
There were already criminal convictions
Two of the defendants — Campbell and Benschop — are already behind bars for their roles in the collapse. Even though a grand jury probed the collapse for the better part of two years, the Philadelphia Office of the District Attorney felt it could only prove criminal culpability on the parts of Campbell and Benschop, not the building owner or the architect.
Last October, Campbell was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment, though he was acquitted on third-degree murder charges. He was sentenced in January to spend 15 to 30 years in prison. Benschop pleaded guilty in July 2015 to manslaughter charges and was sentenced to spend 7 1/2 to 15 years behind bars.
What this means for Basciano
Basciano is 91 years old. And for years after the collapse, the real estate developer avoided answering questions about the Market Street collapse — until he was deposed for four days last December.
According to The Inquirer, Basciano insisted he’s not at fault for the collapse, and instead placed the brunt of the blame on his architect, the inexperienced demolition contractor overseeing the demo and the Salvation Army itself.
“My dream was shattered as a result of that terrible accident, where I have tears in my eyes to this day,” Basciano said, according to transcripts reviewed by the Inky. “My memory is tainted by the ordeal of all of these problems that’s existing today as well as the medical problems. I fought in three major battles in World War II and I’ve got an impeccable record, but I am hurt by what has happened. I just want to make a point. I’m sorry.”
Now, for the first time, Basciano will be forced to answer questions. In public.
Status of the case
This case took awhile to come together. Like three-ish years. That’s largely because of the consolidation of the cases, decided by a judge in December 2013. Depositions had to be coordinated along with the schedules of some 20 lawyers, and the case is complicated.
Finally, opening statements are beginning today in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia following the seating of the jury. The attorneys are under a strict gag order, and even the jury selection — normally a public process — was done in secret as to not taint the jury pool. And while compensation may be decided upon, the attorneys for the plaintiffs insist it’s not what their clients are after.
“When our clients came to us about this case, they said it isn’t about money,” Jeffrey Goodman, an attorney with Mongeluzzi’s firm, said last year. “To them, it’s about finding out what happened, and making sure it doesn’t happen to someone else’s family.”