A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has stayed civil litigation
arising from June’s deadly building collapse in downtown Philadelphia, a decision likely to result in delayed payments of damages to survivors of the incident and families of those who perished in the collapse.
According to court dockets, media reports, and lawyers involved with the litigation, Judge Mark Bernstein ordered a stay of nine months pending disposition of parallel criminal investigation into the disaster.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams had earlier this summer convened a grand jury to investigate the June 5 building collapse at 22nd and Market Streets.
Demolition contractors taking down a vacant structure sent an unsupported wall toppling over an adjacent Salvation Army thrift shop.
The collapse resulted in six deaths and 13 injuries.
The first person to file suit in the wake of the incident was Nadine White, a Philadelphia resident who was discovered buried beneath the rubble created during the collapse.
White’s negligence suit was filed on the same day as the collapse by famed Philadelphia personal injury lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, of the high-profile plaintiffs’ firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett and Bendesky.
Like other suits that have since been filed by survivors of the collapse, as well as litigation initiated by relatives of those who died in the incident, the White case accuses a handful of defendants of negligence and other allegations.
They include Richard Basciano, the owner of the 2136 Market Street building that collapsed onto the thrift store; Griffin T. Campbell, the demolition contractor hired to take down Basciano’s building; and STB Investments Corp., Basciano’s enterprise. Some suits also include Sean Benschop as a defendant.
Benschop, who was operating the excavator at the time of the collapse, is the only person who has thus far been criminally charged in connection with the incident.
As for the judge’s stay, Bernstein docketed his order in the White case on Aug. 16, court records show.
Mongeluzzi, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the stay affects all of the other civil suits arising from the building collapse.
The order doesn’t prohibit new civil actions from being initiated, and it would presumably stay those future actions when they are filed, Mongeluzzi told the Pennsylvania Record.
In an email, Mongeluzzi said that while he has respected Bernstein as one of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court’s “fairest and brightest judges for 25 years,” he nonetheless would be filing a motion for reconsideration of the stay.
The motion, he wrote, would illustrate “how we can protect the constitutional rights of Griffin Campbell, and anyone else who is under investigation, with targeted discovery of other witnesses and companies that will not encroach on anyone’s constitutional rights.”
That is how discovery was handled in the civil case arising out of the deaths of two European young people who perished after the amphibious tourist vehicle they were riding on in the Delaware River in Philadelphia was struck by a sludge barge being pushed by a tugboat whose driver was on his cellphone at the time.
The first mate, Matt Devlin, was under investigation and subsequently indicted at the same time the civil cases were filed in the aftermath of the duck boat incident, noted Mongeluzzi, who also handled that litigation.
As for the building collapse case, Mongeluzzi said that balancing the constitutional rights of those under criminal investigation against the rights of civil litigants is always difficult, so he understands the tough predicament Bernstein faced in addressing the petition for a stay of the litigation.
In a statement released prior to Bernstein’s order, Mongeluzzi said he and his firm were “vigorously opposing” the request by Campbell, the demolition contractor, to stay the civil proceedings for at least nine months due to the ongoing grand jury investigation.
In his prior statement, Mongeluzzi said that the civil cases should be allowed to move forward at this time because they won’t necessarily conflict with the criminal investigation by the District Attorney’s Office and the grand jurors.
“Justice delayed is justice denied and we will fight to prevent additional suffering due to this delaying tactic filed by Campbell’s insurance carrier,” Mongeluzzi had stated.
In the same statement, the attorney said that there is now “conclusive evidence,” including emails between STB Investments, the City of Philadelphia, and the adjacent building owner, that the Salvation Army was warned of an impending disaster and problems at the demolition site, but that it failed to take the proper steps to ensure the safety of shoppers and workers at the thrift shop.
Mongeluzzi recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that a stay would greatly hamper discovery, and in turn push back trials for close to three years or so.
Attorney James Golkow, who represents another injured plaintiff, Shirley Ball, told the newspaper that he thinks Bernstein’s decision was “outrageous.”
“As the saying goes, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’” Golkow was quoted as saying in the paper. “My client has not been back to work, she has mounting medical bills with no health insurance … We’ve now turned a two-year wait into three or four years."