Judge allows Griffin Campbell to be questioned in collapse suit

Demolition contractor Griffin Campbell (left) was convicted of six counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2013 collapse of a Salvation Army in Center City that left six dead and 13 others injured.

A Philadelphia judge has ordered that North Philadelphia demolition contractor Griffin Campbell be questioned under oath by lawyers preparing for next September's civil trial on behalf of those killed and injured in the 2013 Center City building collapse.

Common Pleas Court Judge Mark I. Bernstein ruled Monday that a deposition would not infringe on Campbell's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Campbell, 51, was found guilty in October of six counts of involuntary manslaughter in the June 5, 2013, collapse of a Salvation Army thrift store at 22d and Market Streets.

The jury found that Campbell ignored public safety by leaving erect an unsupported three-story brick wall. The wall toppled onto the Salvation Army store, killing six and injuring 13.

Campbell is to be sentenced Jan. 8, and plaintiffs' lawyers in the civil litigation want to depose him for five days afterward before he is transferred to a prison in another part of the state.

Although Campbell testified in his defense in the criminal trial, defense attorney William D. Hobson objected to a deposition.

Hobson said that questioning in a civil deposition would be much broader than the questions in the criminal trial and that Campbell could incriminate himself.

Hobson's cocounsel, Bryan P. Werley, argued to Bernstein that Campbell's Fifth Amendment protection should be extended because he will appeal the conviction and could get a new trial.

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a lawyer for plaintiffs in the civil litigation, argued that Campbell waived a blanket Fifth Amendment privilege when he chose to testify.

Mongeluzzi said that Campbell could still refuse to answer a question, citing the Fifth Amendment, and that Bernstein can rule on each refusal to respond.

Bernstein agreed and ordered prison officials to make Campbell and excavator operator Sean Benschop available for depositions immediately after their Jan. 8 sentencing.

Benschop, 44, whom Campbell hired to take down the wall next to the Salvation Army store, pleaded guilty to six counts of involuntary manslaughter and other charges. He did not file an objection to the deposition.

Werley said after the brief hearing that he would consider appealing Bernstein's ruling to Superior Court. An appeal by Werley, or the postponement of sentencing, could also delay the depositions.

Mongeluzzi argued that plaintiffs' lawyers are on a tight schedule to complete pretrial discovery and depositions by April 4.

Bernstein has set May 2 for a settlement conference and Sept. 6 for the start of a civil jury trial.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Mongeluzzi said after the hearing. "He can't have it both ways. You can't delay indefinitely a civil claim against you while claiming a Fifth Amendment privilege."

Mongeluzzi has proposed deposing Campbell beginning Jan. 11 for five days, followed by five-days of questioning Benschop starting Jan. 18.

The civil trial consolidates 20 individual lawsuits. In addition to Campbell and Benschop, those sued are 16 other individuals and entities: Richard Basciano, the real estate developer who owned the building at 2136-38 Market St. that fell and crushed the store; national and local entities of the Salvation Army; and Plato A. Marinakos Jr., Basciano's demolition architect, who testified before a grand jury under a grant of immunity and against Campbell at trial.

Mongeluzzi said Basciano's project manager, Thomas Simmonds, would be deposed Tuesday; Basciano is to be deposed Monday.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

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