Salvation Army Looks Bad In Market Street Building Collapse Suit

The family of one 24-year-old victim alleges "conscience-shocking behavior."

It’s been nearly three months since the Salvation Army building collapse at 22nd and Market streets led to the death of six people and the injury of many more. The injured victims have been lining up in court, with some plaintiffs filing personal injury suits within days of the collapse. And on Tuesday, the first wrongful death suit was filed in the case. (See the full complaint below.)

24-year-old Mary Lea Simpson (right) was shopping in the Salvation Army thrift store on the morning of June 5th when the building collapsed. According to the suit, filed by Simpson’s brother and estate executor, Simpson was trapped in the rubble and asphyxiated.

The suit names the following parties: various Salvation Army entities and employees; developer Richard Basciano and some of his related companies and employees; demolition contractor Griffin Campbell; demolition equipment operator Sean Benschop, who is in jail in lieu of $1.55 million bail; and architect and expediter Plato Marinakos.

The plaintiff alleges that “the collapse was caused by negligence, carelessness, recklessness, intentional misrepresentations and conscience-shocking behavior of the Defendants…” and that it was “highly foreseeable” to at least some of the defendants “that a construction catastrophe was imminent.”

The suit also highlights a prolonged dispute between Basciano’s team and the Salvation Army. Basciano owns a number of buildings in the neighborhood, including some used for adult entertainment, and he reportedly wanted the Salvation Army building as well.

But the Salvation Army, a Christian organization, wouldn’t sell to the man once known as the “porn king of Times Square.” According to the suit, Basciano said of the Salvation Army prior to the collapse, “They should be embarrassed for playing hardball.”

The suit claims that the Salvation Army had received warnings about the demolition work occurring next door to the thrift store but stubbornly refused to close.

Here’s what the suit alleges:

The Salvation Army’s motivation for intentionally misrepresenting the safety of the public while at the 2140 Market Street thrift store was to make money.

The Salvation Army intentionally misrepresented and deceived the public into believing the… thrift store was safe as to ensure that the public would continue shopping in the store.

In fact, on May 10, 2013, Major Deitrick, the Salvation Army’s General Secretary admitted that the primary concern of the Salvation Army was to continue to make money, acknowledging the dangerous condition but stating it was necessary to “protect our own investments.” [Emphasis indicated in suit.]

The plaintiff also claims that Basciano himself was at the scene of the demolition moments before the collapse and that he “allowed the work to continue to be performed in a reckless and dangerous fashion.”

Damages are unspecified. Basciano attorney Richard Sprague was unavailable for comment. On Tuesday morning, Salvation Army attorney Eric Weiss told NBC 10 that “the Salvation Army was never aware or made aware of a danger of collapse.”

“That’s just wrong,” claims Steven G. Wigrizer, the attorney representing Simpson’s family. “If you take a look at the emails that were released by the City Solicitor, there was very explicit and frank discussion about the risk of injury or worse.”

But Weiss tells me that the Salvation Army was unaware that structural demolition was occurring. “And at no point in time had the Salvation Army been notified that the demolition would be done by excavator and not by hand,” he insists. “The Salvation Army had no way to know what a Griffin Campbell employee was doing, and there was no way that the Salvation Army could have ever anticipated that this would happen. How could the Salvation Army have done anything? We are not an agency of the government. We can’t stop anyone from doing anything, and we had no idea they were going to do this.”

“We’ve heard reports about the vibrations and sounds of the demolition coming through the wall,” says Wigrizer. “And that an employee even joked about the prospect of the walls coming down. It’s shocking that they would continue to do business. And the owner and contractor shouldn’t be exonerated. Even a child playing with building blocks understands that if you have a freestanding wall with blocks and it’s unsupported and you subject it to vibration—and in this case, traffic, the subway—the wall is going to collapse. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. This was a cut-rate approach. A lot has to do with the fact that there was no engineering plan or survey. And a lot of it is just outright callousness and an uncaring attitude.”

Philadelphia Building Collapse Wrongful Death Complaint by Brian Howard