The 17-week-long civil trial of lawsuits filed in the deadly 2013 Center City building collapse came to an abrupt close on Feb. 8 with the announcement of a $227 million settlement with the Salvation Army and New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano. This civil trial was called the longest in Philadelphia state court history by Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina when the jury was told of the settlement. This settlement was also the largest personal injury settlement in Pennsylvania state court history, according to reports. The settlement proceeds will be divided among the families of the seven people who died and the 12 who were injured as a result of the June 5, 2013, collapse of a Basciano building being demolished. The adjacent Salvation Army thrift store was crushed when the building collapsed.
The manner in which the money will be apportioned among the 19 Plaintiffs will be up to an arbitrator who will evaluate the individual claims. As with most civil trials involving death and personal injury, awards are based on such factors as lost earning potential, medical bills, and the impact on victims’ families. The Plaintiff who will definitely receive the largest portion of the settlement is Mariya Plekan, a Ukrainian immigrant and regular customer of the thrift store. Ms. Plekan, then 52, was buried under the store’s rubble for 13 hours. Her injuries were so severe she underwent a “guillotine amputation,” the surgical removal of the lower half of her body at the hips. Ms. Plekan has undergone 30 surgeries, survived kidney failure and lung problems, and lost her ability to speak because of throat damage from months on a respirator. She will require round-the-clock nursing care for the rest of her life and her future medical expenses are estimated at $50 million.
It was reported that $200 million of the settlement will come from the Salvation Army and $27 million from the 91-year-old Basciano. No money is being paid by Defendants Plato A. Marinakos Jr., an architect hired by Basciano to monitor the demolition of the vacant four-story building; demolition contractor Griffin Campbell; and Sean Benschop, Campbell’s excavator operator. Federal court records show that Marinakos emerged from bankruptcy in 2012, the year before the collapse. It was reported that his liability insurance coverage was exhausted. Campbell and Benschop, the only two criminally convicted in the disaster, are serving long prison terms and are indigent.
It was reported that the deciding factor in reaching a settlement was the fact that the Salvation Army’s liability insurance was capped at $100 million. The balance of the settlement will have to come from the Salvation Army. Interestingly, according to the Salvation Army’s 2015 annual report, which is on its website, the national organization has $14.8 billion in assets and took in $2.9 billion in revenue that year.
The Salvation Army’s thrift store building was destroyed and two of its workers were killed. The Salvation Army was sued for ignoring warnings of an imminent collapse of the building from Basciano’s top aide, Thomas Simmonds, and for not telling workers and customers about the potential danger. Salvation Army officers testified that they did not believe Simmonds’ warnings. But the jury, in its liability verdict on Jan. 31, found that the charity bore 75 percent of the responsibility for the shoppers being killed and injured in the collapse. The jury found that Basciano and his STB Investments Corp. were responsible for a total 18 percent of the harm to shoppers killed and injured in the collapse and 68 percent of the harm to thrift store workers killed and injured.
Trial testimony showed that Basciano and his top aide failed to do due diligence research before hiring Marinakos, who had no major experience monitoring a large commercial demolition. The testimony also showed Basciano accepted without investigation Marinakos’ recommendation to hire Campbell, an inexperienced and unlicensed contractor, to handle the demolition project. All of this was a recipe for disaster.
The settlement’s announcement came after three days of testimony from several survivors and families of one of the decedents. At the time of the settlement, the jury was deliberating on damages to compensate the victims for their injuries and losses. Had the trial continued, the jurors would have been in deliberations on punitive damages against Basciano and the Salvation Army.
The Plaintiffs are represented by Robert Mongeluzzi, Larry Bendesky, Andrew Duffy and Jeffrey Goodman of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky PC, Steven Wigrizer and Jason Weiss of Wapner Newman Wigrizer Brecher & Miller PC, Andrew Stern and Elizabeth Crawford of Kline & Specter PC, Harry Roth and James G. Begley of Cohen Placitella & Roth PC, Adam Grutzmacher of Clearfield & Kofsky, James Golkow of Golkow Hessel LLC, Bernard Smalley Sr. and Jasmine Johnson of Tucker Law Group, the Law Offices of R. Emmett Madden Esq., Joseph Marrone, Michael Pomerantz, Brian Marchese and Keith West of the Marrone Law Firm LLC, Jonathan Cohen of Jonathan M. Cohen LLC, and the Law Offices of Jerome Gamburg. The case is Angelo Harmon as administrator of the estate of Juanita Harmon, et al., v. The Salvation Army, et al. (case number 130700720) in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.