The widow of a veteran Philadelphia firefighter who died while battling a
warehouse blaze last year has filed a civil complaint against the owners of the derelict city property where the fire began.
Diane Neary, wife of the late Robert Neary, filed suit last week at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas over the April 2012 death of her husband, which occurred while the lieutenant with the Philadelphia Fire Department was fighting a fire at a furniture store on York Street in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.
Robert Neary, a 37-year department veteran, was crushed to death by a wall that had fallen on top of the furniture store.
The blaze had begun at an adjacent warehouse and eventually spread over to the furniture store.
The owners of the warehouse, who are named as defendants in the litigation, are accused of negligence for allowing squatters to occupy the vacant structure.
“The defendants knew, or should have known by the exercise of reasonable care, that a property that was empty for more than three and one-half years needed to be adequately and properly secured to prevent unauthorized entry,” the complaint reads. “The defendants knew, or should have known that the visible condition of the vacant property would attract various individuals who would have unfettered access to the unsecured property and would act either negligently, recklessly and/or intentionally in a manner that would create a risk of fire and catastrophe.”
The lawsuit says that the York Street property was not properly maintained or secured from the fall of 2008 through the spring of 2012.
During that time, the complaint alleges, more than 60 vandals, vagrants, drug dealers, drug users, prostitutes, looters and other individuals were illegally living in the structure due to the defendants’ “negligence and recklessness.”
The illegal occupants would at times strip copper and other materials from the building, acts that the plaintiff contends were capable of causing a fire.
The defendants were cited three separate times by the City of Philadelphia between November 2011 and March 2012 for failing to properly secure the property from unlawful occupants, the suit states.
The suit says the owners of the York Street warehouse were known around the city as “New Yorkers who collect and neglect” Philadelphia properties.
At the time of the April 10, 2012, fire that killed Robert Neary as well as Daniel Sweeney, a twentysomething department rookie, the defendants owed the City of Philadelphia more than $400,000 in back taxes and penalties as well as more than $10,000 in unpaid water bills, according to the complaint.
“Each of the Defendants knew and/or should have known that the York Street Property was being used as a drug den and illegal chop shop by drug dealers and users, vagrants, and other illegal occupants,” the suit reads.
The defendants ultimately ignored violation notices that were issued to them by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, the suit states, and the city finally moved in February 2012 to proceed with a sheriff’s sale of the property.
One of the defendants named in the complaint, Yechial Lichtenstein, once toured the property in an attempt to rent the building and “specifically observed the dangerous conditions in, on, and around the property, including holes from the floor through the roof as well as combustible materials,” the complaint states.
Lichtenstein also observed bedding and recently opened food containers during his visit, which proved that people were illegally occupying the structure, the suit says.
“Yechial and Nahman Lichtenstein were well aware of the dangerous condition of this property and they deliberately ignored these dangers thereby risking a catastrophe to the Kensington community as well as the firemen who responded to the fire call that resulted in the death of Lieutenant Neary,” the complaint reads.
Nahman Lichtenstein is a co-defendant in the suit, as are the following people and entities: Toby Moskovits, also known as Toby Moskowitz; York Street Property Development; Heritage Equity Partners; and YML Realty Inc.
The defendants, who at the time of the fire tragedy collectively owned 31 other properties in Philadelphia, 24 of which were allegedly tax-delinquent, are accused of various counts of negligence.
Diane Neary, who also has a loss of consortium count in the lawsuit, says that her husband experienced “severe pain, extreme suffering, and … death by suffocation.”
The complaint says that the warehouse fire was started by an unknown individual or individuals occupying the defendants’ property.
The building allegedly has no sprinkler or other fire suppression system, which contributed to the blaze growing so large that it spread to the nearby furniture store, the site of Neary’s death.
“Defendants’ conduct was outrageous and committed with reckless indifference to the safety of the decedent, the other fire personnel, and the community at large,” the suit states.
Diane Neary seeks more than $50,000 in compensatory damages, along with unspecified punitive damages, delay damages, interest and other court relief.
She is being represented by Philadelphia attorneys Thomas W. Sheridan and Christopher D. Hinderliter of the firm Sheridan & Murray.
The case ID number is 130903273.