Richard Basciano, owner of the "Hoagie City" building that collapsed during demolition in June 2013 and left seven dead and 12 injured, appeared in court Tuesday on day two of the catastrophe’s long-coming civil trial.
The elderly developer wore headphones to hear his defense attorney Thomas Sprague present his opening statement. He left after Sprague finished a nearly three-hour presentation, hobbling out of court with the help of two associates and a cane.
He did not return, following a break, to hear defense attorneys present their openings for fellow defendants Griffin Campbell, the contractor for the demolition of 2136-38 Market St., or Plato Marinakos, Basciano’s project representative. Marinakos was again in court Tuesday. He was the lone named defendant to appear Monday when attorneys for the 19 plaintiffs gave their openings.
The six defendants are Basciano and his company STB, Marinakos, Campbell, Campbell’s demolition excavator operator Sean Benschop, and the Salvation Army, which owned the store that Basciano’s building crushed the morning of June 5, 2013 when four stories of concrete, brick and steel fell suddenly.
Campbell and Benschop were the only people criminally charged and are each serving lengthy prison terms for involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment. The Salvation Army, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued Monday, are at fault because company officials failed to heed warnings that the attorneys claim were evident in numerous emails from those working for Basciano.
But in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon, the Salvation Army's lead attorney, Jack Snyder, argued that what plaintiffs' attorneys described as "warnings" were mischaracterized, saying STB's project manager was prone to "hyperbole" and that if not for Benschop's actions the day of the collapse, the catastrophe would never have happened. He also claimed that the New York-based non-profit's executives did respond promptly whenever officials with the demolition project reached out to them.
In his opening to start the morning session, Sprague argued that Basciano had no direct connection to the demolition work being done by Campbell and Benschop. On several occasions, Sprague told the jury, that Basciano had nothing to do with "the means and methods" of the contract and excavator operator.
Sprague also said the evidence would show over the course of the lengthy trial ahead that Basciano’s representative, Marinakos, also failed to communicate any potential for catastrophe in the days before the collapse.
"Mr. Campbell allegedly called Mr. Marinakos and told him the morning of June 5 that the wall is down," Sprague said of a dangerously free-standing four-story wall of concrete and bricks attached to the Salvation Army store. But the wall was not taken down, Sprague said.
What did Marinakos do? Sprague asked. "He doesn’t notify police. He doesn’t notify L&I. He does not notify Mr. (Thomas) Simmonds (Basciano’s project manager). He doesn’t notify Mr. Basciano.”
Marinakos’ attorney, Neal P. Clain Jr., told the jury in his opening that Marinakos did find fault in the way the demolition was being performed and demanded on June 4 that Griffin take the dangerous wall down immediately. Clain also told jurors that Benschop, who had experience demolishing "hundreds of buildings" in Philadelphia over his career, was operating the excavator at the moment the collapse occurred and that Campbell had direct oversight of Benschop, not Marinakos.
He said at no point during the trial will anyone testify that "Mr. Marinakos controlled or knew about what Mr. Benschop was doing in the excavator that morning."
Mr. Campbell’s attorney, Brian Werley, said his client was never included in any of the emails and other communication between Simmonds, Marinakos, Salvation Army officials and attorneys for both Basciano and the Salvation Army that discussed the project and potential risks it posed to those who worked and shopped inside the Salvation Army store at the corner of 22nd and Market streets.
Benschop does not have an attorney.
Opening arguments, as Sarmina told the jury Monday and Tuesday, do not count as evidence.
Day one began with an attorney for nine plaintiffs, Robert Mongeluzzi, delivering a stinging two-hour appraisal of what led up to the collapse.
"The evidence in this case will show you this was the blind leading the blind leading the blind," Mongeluzzi told the jury.
After Mongeluzzi, who is representing nine plaintiffs, finished his opening, several other attorneys representing other plaintiffs gave short introductions to the 12-person jury.
They were followed by a motion from the attorney representing STB, Peter Greiner, asking Sarmina for a mistrial. Griner argued that the use of the phrase "buried under the rubble" by some of the plaintiffs’ attorneys may have poisoned the jurors’ minds before the presentation of any evidence had commenced. Opening arguments, as Sarmina told the jury, do not count as evidence.
The judge denied Greiner’s motion.
Defense attorneys made two more motions for a mistrial Monday afternoon after plaintiffs' attorneys Steven Wigrizer and Andrew Stern gave their opening statements. Each told jurors they'd prove the Salvation Army was grossly negligent and reckless for failing to investigate warnings of potential danger, not communicating any of the information to workers or customers and for failing to close the thrift store until the safety issues and arguments with Basciano's team were worked out.
"By simply not closing that store, they did the most harm," Stern said of the Salvation Army, referring to the organization's own promise: Doing The Most Good.
Judge Sarmina denied those motions as well.
The trial is expected to last two months or more. Sarmina said at one point Monday that as many as 150 people could be on the witness list, which has not yet been made available. The judge did rule that it would become available to the press as soon as possible.
Testimony was set to begin Wednesday.