In fatal wall collapse, three months after $227 million settlement, victims' payout nears

Three months after the largest personal-injury settlement in Pennsylvania history, the process of dividing $227 million among the families of the seven people who died and the 12 who were hurt in the 2013 Center City building collapse is nearing an end.

On May 3, the final hearings were held by Philadelphia arbitrator Jerry P. Roscoe -- private sessions in which the 19 families affected had the chance to talk about the effect of the collapse on them, and to present financial evidence supporting a portion of the settlement.

Roscoe is expected to make his decision 30 days from May 3, according to Steven G. Wigrizer, one of three lead counsels who managed the civil litigation over the collapse.

The timeline will put the announcement on or close to the fourth anniversary of the June 5, 2013, disaster, when a three- to four-story unbraced brick wall on a demolition site toppled and crushed the Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.

The process and criteria Roscoe will use in determining who gets what amount from the settlement are unknown. Roscoe, 63, is a veteran lawyer who works as a neutral arbitrator for JAMS, an international alternative dispute resolution firm.  JAMS spokeswoman Celine Nieto said the company does not comment on its cases.

Roscoe was selected by the plaintiffs’ lawyers after the $227 million settlement was announced Feb. 8 as a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury was hearing evidence before determining an award of damages.

After a 17-week civil trial, the jury found three people or entities financially liable for the collapse: the Salvation Army, New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano and his STB Investments Corp., and Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr.

The jury determined that the Salvation Army ignored warnings of an imminent danger of collapse at Basciano’s demolition site next to the thrift store. It found that Basciano hired an unskilled and unlicensed contractor who was recommended by Marinakos, who monitored demolition.

By the time of the settlement, however, Marinakos had apparently exhausted his professional liability insurance and the settlement was divided as $200 million from the Salvation Army and $27 million from Basciano and STB.  

Wigrizer's cocounsel in the litigation, Robert J. Mongeluzzi, said Basciano's death on May 1 at age 91 would not affect the settlement.

Wigrizer said the arbitration hearings seemed to come as a relief to his clients. The settlement was announced after three days of emotional testimony by survivors of the collapse and relatives of those who died. But others who never got the chance were then able to tell their stories.

“My clients uniformly felt good about the fact that they had a chance to testify in this kind of environment,” Wigrizer added. He calling the hearings "healing and cathartic,” and praised Roscoe’s handling of the sessions: “He has a judicial manner, he listened intently and was incredibly well-prepared.”

The settlement distribution does not have to be approved by a Common Pleas Court judge, and Wigrizer said he did not know if any or all of the families would want the amount of their award made public.

Wigrizer said the cases of the seven people who died will have to go before an Orphans’ Court judge to verify the legal beneficiaries of their estates.

Orphans' Court Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello has set a hearing for Tuesday.

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