Plaintiffs' lawyers to jury in collapse trial: Hold everyone responsible

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The scene of the building collapse on June 6, 2013, the day after the disaster.

Just two people were criminally convicted and sentenced to prison for their roles in the 2013 Center City building collapse that killed six people and injured 13 inside a Salvation Army thrift store.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the victims urged a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury not to let others involved in the disaster escape all legal responsibility.

"This trial is the first time a jury will have the chance to decide the trial issues in this tragedy with all of these parties," said plaintiffs' attorney Harry M. Roth in a closing argument to the jury.

Lawyer Steven G. Wigrizer quoted writer Roy T. Bennett, telling the jury: "Every choice comes with a consequence. Once you make a choice, you must accept responsibility."

"Please don't let them escape the consequences of their choices," Wigrizer said. "Each of them played an important part; each was a piece of that puzzle."

The plaintiffs concluded their case with speeches by Wigrizer, Roth, and Andrew J. Stern. They were followed by closings by lawyers for two of the six defendants, architect Jack Higgins and Griffin Campbell, the North Philadelphia demolition contractor whose work caused the June 5, 2013, collapse that crushed the thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the other defendants, including New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano and the Salvation Army, will get their chance to convince the jury their clients bear no responsibility for the city's most significant municipal disaster since the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound in West Philadelphia and its resulting fire.

A score of collapse survivors and relatives of the dead filled the front two rows of one side of the courtroom. On the other side were seven uniformed officers of the Salvation Army command. Basciano did not attend.

Tuesday's closings followed one last bit of testimony presented by the lawyer for Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr., who will begin the defense closings on Wednesday.

Marinakos was hired by Basciano and his STB Investments Corp. to monitor demolition of Basciano's vacant four-story Hoagie City building adjacent to the thrift store.

An unbraced three- to four-story brick wall left standing from Hoagie City toppled and destroyed the one-story thrift store.

Six people were killed instantly; one of the 13 injured died 23 days later.

Although the Salvation Army's building was destroyed and two of its workers killed, the religious charity was sued for purportedly ignoring warnings of an imminent collapse from Thomas Simmonds, Basciano's right-hand man, and not telling workers and customers about the potential danger.

Also sued are Campbell, the inexperienced, unlicensed contractor whom Marinakos recommended for the project; Sean Benschop, the excavator operator whom Campbell hired to raze the building; and Higgins, an architect from Northeastern Pennsylvania whom the Salvation Army hired to catalog the thrift store's condition to prove later claims for demolition-related damage.

Campbell and Benschop both were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and related counts in the criminal trial and are serving long prison terms.

Higgins' lawyer, Daniel J. McCarthy, argued that Higgins played no real role causing the collapse because his directions from the Salvation Army were limited and he was on site just one day, May 20, 2013, well before the disaster.

Campbell attorney Bryan P. Werley acknowledged Campbell's inexperience and said his criminal conviction proves he helped cause the collapse. Werley instead blamed Marinakos for directing Campbell and then obtaining immunity from prosecution immediately after the disaster. Marinakos was the key prosecution witness in the 2015 criminal trial.

"Mr. Marinakos had immunity then," Werley told the jury. "He doesn't have immunity now."

The plaintiffs' lawyers, in their closing, highlighted what they considered the most damning evidence against the defendants in 14 weeks of testimony that began Sept. 19.

The 91-year-old Basciano, who broke down in tears on the witness stand about the lives lost in the collapse, was the focus of the plaintiffs' arguments about blame and responsibility.

Wigrizer cited Basciano's early work history as a bricklayer and roofer and told the jury he was experienced enough to know that his building was being demolished in an unsafe manner.

"Richard Basciano made a bet, took a chance," Wigrizer told the jury. "He took a calculated, reckless, dangerous chance that he could tear down his building on one of Center City Philadelphia's busiest thoroughfares using a cut-rate contractor."

Stern, who represents Mariya Plekan, a thrift store customer trapped in the debris whose legs were amputated at the hip, called "unconscionable" the Salvation Army's ignoring what was happening next to the store.

"There were so many opportunities for the Salvation Army to just do something," Stern added. "They did nothing."

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

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