The lawyer for New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano said Monday that the 91-year-old bore no legal responsibility for the deadly 2013 building collapse that killed six people and injured 13 inside a Salvation Army store in Center City.
Peter A. Greiner made the comment as he continued questioning construction industry expert Stephen A. Estrin.
Estrin was the sole witness Monday in the beginning of the second week of the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court civil trial of lawsuits filed on behalf of those killed and injured when an unsupported three- to four-story brick wall from a Basciano building being demolished toppled and crushed the thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.
Greiner contends that Basciano and his STB Investments Corp. did not know how to demolish a building. Basciano and his top aide, Thomas Simmonds, depended on Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr., whom they hired as owner's representative monitoring demolition of five Basciano buildings in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street.
"An owner, just because he assigns a contractor, cannot absolve himself of all responsibility," responded Estrin, 77, a veteran construction and demolition contractor who now works as an expert witness on construction industry customs and standards.
Estrin has worked for plaintiffs' attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi for about 25 years, including as an expert in litigation involving the 2000 Pier 34 collapse on the Delaware River, which killed three people and injured 43.
"But what if the owner has no liability?" repeated Greiner.
"I don't understand how an owner cannot have liability," Estrin said.
Estrin, who began testifying late Wednesday, finished his third full day on the witness stand. He has told the jury that the collapse resulted from a chain of reckless incompetence that began when Basciano and STB hired Marinakos. Marinakos, who had no demolition experience, then recommended novice North Philadelphia contractor Griffin Campbell to raze the buildings. Campbell's only prior demolition experience was two burned-out rowhouses.
Greiner's questioning was followed by cross-examination by lawyers for Marinakos and Campbell, each of whom tried to get Estrin to transfer the blame to someone else: from Marinakos to Campbell and from Campbell to Sean Benschop, an excavator operator whom Campbell hired to knock down the remains of the vacant four-story Hoagie City building next to the thrift store.
Greiner, in turn, accused Marinakos of failing to tell Basciano or Simmonds that the building was in "imminent danger of collapse" before the June 5, 2013, disaster.
Estrin testified that Basciano and Simmonds failed to research Marinakos' background before hiring him on the recommendation of a real estate broker with whom they had worked.
According to Estrin, Marinakos knew so little about demolition that he did not know that the protracted Hoagie City demolition violated mandatory workplace safety rules of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as other demolition industry standards.
After the jury was sent home Monday, Greiner made a final unsuccessful attempt to get Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina to strike Estrin's testimony. Greiner argued that Estrin's opinions were personal, not accepted construction industry standards.
Those being sued in the case include Basciano and STB, Marinakos, the Salvation Army, Campbell, and Benschop.