First Wrongful Death Suit Filed in Philadelphia Building Collapse

The family of an arts school graduate killed in a fatal building demolition as she shopped at a Philadelphia Salvation Army store, filed the first wrongful death lawsuit this week regarding the collapse.

On June 5th, the building collapsed, killing six people, one of which was 24-year-old Mary Lea Simpson, a figure skater and art school graduate of suburban Haverford, as well as her childhood friend, Anne Bryan.  Bryan is the daughter of Nancy Winkler, Philadelphia city treasurer.

The young women were dropping off clothes for donation and shopping when a high brick wall from an adjacent building that was left unsupported during demolition, collapsed onto the small thrift store, trapping 19 people.

The Simpson family’s lawsuit blames the Salvation Army, adjacent building owner Richard Basciano and his demolition contractors, among others, for her death.

This is not the first time Basciano has been involved in a wrongful death lawsuit. In 1997 he was sued over the death of a Philadelphia judge who was killed when part of a garage collapsed on a sidewalk, resulting in a multi-million dollar settlement.

The lawsuit blames the Salvation Army for having the store remain open during the demolition, and Basciano and contractors Griffin Campbell and Sean Benschop for crafting a risky plan, including starting work on the project before securing permits.

In fact, the lawsuit states that the organization was warned of “an uncontrolled collapse.”

Basciano was once dubbed the “porn king of Times Square.” He was recently redeveloping a seedy block of Market Street in Philadelphia’s business area. Basciano was feuding with the Salvation Army over the demolition plan in the months and weeks leading up to the collapse, according to emails released by the city.

Basciano wanted access to the space above the Salvation Army so he could use a bucket truck to remove the four-story brick wall by hand, as was recommended by demolition experts. But the negotiations stalled, even as Basciano’s attorneys warned him of the risk to the public.

The delay “posed a threat to life, limb and public safety,” Basciano’s lawyers warned the Salvation Army.

An architect for the Salvation Army had found both buildings stable on May 20th and the charity was told no structural demolition would begin until the disputes were resolved. However, a video taken June 2nd shows an excavator being used to tear part of the building down.

The suit states that the architect working for STB issued an internal letter on February 5thstating that the Salvation Army store was in poor structural shape and “in an extreme state of neglect and repair.”

But still STB continued with the demolition of the neighboring buildings, according to the complaint. Demolition proceeded without the safety of protective scaffolding, nor was a boom bought in as should have been required, the suit states.

Records show that an STB property manager notified the Salvation Army he would need access to the thrift shop, “to temporarily install protection.” A team from all parties met, but failed to compromise on several issues, the suit said.

Although the property manager urged the Salvation Army to respond, the parties remained at an impasse over the cost of a boom and other issues. It was reported that an attorney for STB contacted an attorney for the Salvation Army on May 15th and warned of “risks to the public and all property owners of an uncontrolled collapse of part or loose debris.”

The suit claims that the Salvation Army officials never responded to that specific letter.

A criminal grand jury investigation is underway. Benschop, the only person charged to date, is due in court September 17th for a preliminary hearing in his involuntary manslaughter case. His wife has called him a scapegoat.

The most seriously injured survivor, 52-year-old Mariya Plekan, filed suit last week over her injuries. She lost both legs after spending close to 13 hours in the rubble.

The Simpson lawsuit was filed by her brother and executor, George B. Simpson of San Jose, California, on behalf of himself and their parents, Dr. Zachary W. Simpson and Starr Harris Simpson of Haverford. The family is seeking unspecified damages.

The Salvation Army never should have remained open after being warned repeatedly that the structure was unsafe. The building owner, Basciano definitely should not have taken any chances risking lives, especially after part of his garage collapsed in 1997, killing a judge, for which he was found liable. Feel free to comment on this blog post. You can contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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