Phila. judge sides with defendants in garage collapse negligence case

By Jon Campisi | Aug 16, 2013

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has issued a defense ruling in a

case that arose out of a West Philadelphia garage collapse.

In an Aug. 13 filing, Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson issued judgment in favor of city residents Charles and Paula Johnson, owners of a two-story garage that collapsed on April 30, 2010, behind homes on the 100 block of North 63rd Street.

No one was inside the garage at the time of the collapse; the Johnsons were not at home during that time.

Two separate civil actions – they were eventually consolidated – were filed against the Johnsons, one by neighbors Edward and Dorothy Brooks and the other by Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s London.

A non-jury trial followed in late July.

According to court records, the Brookses heard a loud noise and felt shaking in their home and on their block at the time of the collapse.

The plaintiffs had testified that both their garage and a three-story residence was damaged due to the collapse.

The Brookses had to replace the roof on their garage; repairs also had to be done to the windows and bathroom tiles, the plaintiffs claimed.

The entire exterior of the home also had to be fixed.

A neighbor had testified in her deposition that loud rumbling noises and an explosion were heard and witnessed prior to the collapse of the Johnsons’ garage.

Witnesses and residents testified that employees with Philadelphia Gas Works had been digging in the streets in the neighborhood in the weeks prior to the April 2010 explosion and collapse.

News reports said that the force of the blast was so strong that it shattered the windows of a pizza shop about a block away from the collapse.

Nobody was injured during the incident, but some residents had to be evacuated from their homes.

The Philadelphia Fire Marshal ended up concluding that the cause of the building collapse was “undetermined,” the court record shows.

And the PGW Field Services Department concluded that the agency was not responsible for the explosion and subsequent building collapse.

The Brookses eventually filed suit, alleging that they have incurred, and will continue to incur, substantial costs to repair their home and garage.

Both the Brooks’ and Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s argued that the Johnsons were responsible for damages because the garage would not have collapsed absent their negligence.

The plaintiffs relied on the rule of evidence known as res ipsa loquitur, which allows a court to infer negligence as a cause of injury.

The circumstantial proof of negligence was adopted by Pennsylvania back in 1975, the record shows.

The plaintiffs had theorized that only three possible factors could have led to the collapse – a natural gas explosion, an explosion caused by paint stored in the Johnsons’ garage or a failure on the part of the Johnsons to maintain their garage.

“The Plaintiffs argue that this Court should conclude that because PGW and the Fire Marshall have stated that the cause is ‘undetermined,’ and neither gas nor other combustibles have been identified as the cause of the explosion, then the only possible cause of harm is Defendants’ negligence,” the judicial memorandum states.

The Johnsons argued that the plaintiffs failed to eliminate third parties as causes of harm.

Massiah-Jackson sided with the defendants, writing that other responsible causes have not been sufficiently eliminated, and that the plaintiffs have not established that the harm was more probably than not caused by the defendants.

“The Plaintiffs failed to offer expert testimony or any other testimony to reasonably rule out other causes of the collapse, namely the vibrations caused by drilling holes in the nearby streets or a gas leak,” the judge wrote. “There is nothing in the evidence to permit a conclusion as a matter of law that the garage collapse was more likely than not caused by an action or omission of Charles and Paul Johnson.”

More News

The Record Network