Architect with immunity is focus of hearing in building collapse civil case

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The supervising architect behind the building collapse, Plato Marinakos Jr.​

Within hours of the June 5, 2013, collapse that crushed a Salvation Army thrift store in Center City, killing six people and injuring 13, Philadelphia architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr. had a lawyer.

Marinakos, hired to oversee demolition of a building adjacent to the thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets, was granted immunity from prosecution and became the District Attorney's Office guide and interpreter of events leading to the collapse.

He testified before a county grand jury and against the two men criminally charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison for causing the collapse.

Soon, the 50-year-old Center City architect will be back in a Philadelphia courtroom. This time, however, there will be no immunity and no assurance that he won't be held financially liable to the families of those killed and injured in the disaster.

More important, plaintiffs' lawyers in the coming civil trial are arguing that Marinakos' key role in events extends his liability to New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano and his STB Investments Corp.

In a pretrial hearing Tuesday, plaintiffs' attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi said that Marinakos, by transforming his role from architect to Basciano's and STB's "owner representative" at the demolition site, made himself and Basciano liable for what transpired.

"There was no architectural contract between Plato Marinakos and STB," Mongeluzzi told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. "He was the owner's representative and not an independent contractor."

Attorney Peter A. Greiner, representing STB, insisted that Marinakos was not STB's and Basciano's employee: "His role was to monitor progress and let STB know that demolition was progressing as to plan."

The argument about Marinakos' role and its implications took up much of Tuesday's second pretrial hearing.

Sarmina did not rule on the issue.

Those sued include Basciano and STB, Marinakos, and the Salvation Army, which plaintiffs contend opened the thrift store June 5, 2013, despite email warnings from STB officials that the wall above the store was in danger of collapse.

Also being sued are Griffin Campbell, the demolition contractor whom Marinakos hired, and Sean Benschop, who operated an excavator during the collapse. Both were convicted and sentenced to prison and are essentially penniless.

The answer to whether Marinakos' purported liability extends to others could lie in the parsing of his contract with STB and Basciano, who hired him to oversee demolition of a series of Basciano buildings in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street.

The razing of one building - Hoagie City at 2136 Market - left an unbraced three- to four-story wall looming over the one-story thrift store. At 10:41 a.m. June 5, 2013, as an excavator picked away at a building remnant, the brick wall toppled and flattened the thrift store.

At last year's trial of Campbell, the inexperienced, unlicensed North Philadelphia demolition contractor whom Marinakos recommended to STB for the job, Marinakos blamed the collapse on Campbell, now 52, who is serving 15 to 30 years in prison.

Marinakos testified that his contract with STB made him responsible only for monitoring demolition progress and recommending regular payments to Campbell. Campbell's contract, Marinakos testified, made Campbell alone legally responsible for how the building was razed and for protecting public safety and neighboring properties.

Mongeluzzi, however, said Marinakos' contract with STB made the architect, as owner's representative, responsible for providing all professional services and permits, and meeting city requirements, including an engineering survey, before demolition.

"The engineering survey, they took that responsibility on themselves and they didn't do it," Mongeluzzi argued.

Mongeluzzi argued that Marinakos hired the "clueless" Campbell, whose demolition experience involved several burned-out rowhouses, not a complex of aged multistory commercial buildings.

"Plato Marinakos was running the show," Mongeluzzi said, adding that he hired "a guy who for 18 of the last 20 years of his life was a cook on a 'soul food' food truck."

Marinakos was not in court for the hearing. His lawyer, Neil P. Clain Jr., did not argue on Marinakos' behalf except to tell Sarmina, "My silence should not be taken as tacit acceptance of these statements."

Jury selection will begin Tuesday in the consolidated litigation.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

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