Business owners claim damages from fatal Kensington fire

By Jim Boyle | Aug 6, 2014

A group of business owners have filed suit in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas against the owners and operators of a Kensington warehouse that collapsed in a 2012 fire that also claimed the lives of two firefighters.

The suit blames the owners for not keeping the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery up to city code and holds the city of Philadelphia responsible for not aggressively enforcing those code violations. The three plaintiffs seek punitive and compensatory damages for the loss of their businesses when the vacant building collapsed on its neighbors.

According to the complaint, Yechiel "Michael" Lichtenstein and Mahman Lichtenstein purchased the building in 2008 under the name YML Realty, Inc., and transferred ownership to another of their businesses, York Street Property Development.

Between the time of the purchase and the fire on April 9, 2012, nothing was done to maintain the building and keep it up to city codes, according to the claim. The court documents say that there was no working sprinkler system or alarms, and the building was not secured from trespassers.

The suit says that the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections issued numerous violation notices against the property, counting at least 13 between January 2009 and March 2012. Each notice labeled the warehouse as "unsafe," the complaint says.

According to the complaint, a number of vandals, vagrants, drug dealers, prostitutes and looters regularly trespassed into the vacant building through an unsecured side door and performed illegal behavior, including starting small fires.

In October 2011, a group of neighboring residents contacted the Philadelphia L&I about the ongoing code violations, highlighting specifically three unsecured exterior doors, approximately 80 broken windows, an unsecured elevator shaft, a partial roof collapse and plants growing through cracks on the wall.

An L & I inspector visited the property in November 2011, the complaint says, but instead of adding the latest code violations to the ongoing file, the inspector opened a new case number and counted the notice as the first violation. He returned four more times between December 2011 and March 2012, issuing code violations each time, but the owners allegedly did nothing to remedy the problems.

On April 9, 2012, the warehouse caught fire and quickly became engulfed in flames, requiring 45 companies and more than 100 firefighters to respond to the scene. During the blaze, four firefighters entered an adjacent furniture store to clear the space of any people. While inside the store, the warehouse collapsed into the north wall, killing two firefighters, Lieutenant Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams determined that no charges would be filed against the building owners, but the families of the killed firefighters have filed wrongful death suits against Michael and Mahman Lichtenstein, which are still in litigation.

The complaint says that a grand jury investigation found that the City of Philadelphia and its L&I Department, "had a custom and practice of not properly citing, documenting and identifying material defects; did not meaningfully enforce its building and/or maintenance codes; and did not take appropriate legal action to ensure compliance with codes or to properly secure and/or demolish the property."

Alexander Salas, owner of Los Taxes, Victor Rosero, who operates Sky's the Limit hair salon, and Xiaoli Zhang, owner of New Star, hold the Lichtensteins and the city negligent for allowing the building to deteriorate and failing to do enough to ensure the safety and security of the adjacent businesses. Eulid Noel Perez, a homeowner representing herself and Heather Shaw, who is deceased, says the backdoor of their home was damaged when firefighters broke through to access a better location to fight the blaze.

The plaintiffs jointly seek damages in excess of $50,000 for five counts and separately for an additional four. Salas, who runs a tax preparation company, lost numerous completed tax returns in the fire, losing significant business. Rosero's salon was rendered unusable for a long period of time, the complaint says, causing him to lose potential revenue from clients, as well as business records and inventory items.

Zhang's take-out restaurant was also used by firefighters to gain a more suitable location to fight the fire. The restaurant had to be closed for 11 days for repairs, the complaint says, and the entire food stock was destroyed when the fire cut the electrical power.

The plaintiffs are represented by Joel F. Bigatel in Narberth, Pa.

The case ID number is 140400409.

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