PHILADELPHIA – The family of an arts school graduate killed in a deadly building demolition while she shopped at a Salvation Army store in Philadelphia filed the first wrongful-death lawsuit Tuesday over the collapse.
The June building collapse in Philadelphia killed six people, including 24-year-old Mary Lea Simpson of suburban Haverford and her childhood friend.
The young women were dropping off clothes and shopping when a high brick wall on an adjacent building left unsupported during demolition collapsed onto the small thrift store, trapping 19 people.
The Simpson family’s lawsuit blames the Salvation Army, adjacent building owner Richard Basciano and his demolition contractors, among others, for her death.
“Even a child playing with building blocks should understand that if you pile blocks up in a wall and you don’t support it, and you subject it to vibration and movement … it’s going to fall,” family lawyer Steven Wigrizer said.
Wigrizer had previously sued Basciano over the 1997 death of a Philadelphia judge killed when part of a garage collapsed on a sidewalk, securing a multimillion-dollar settlement amid jury selection, he said.
“Now we see outrageously bad decision-making by the same group. So there’s a pattern and practice of negligence here,” he said Tuesday.
The lawsuit faults the Salvation Army for keeping the store open amid the demolition, and Basciano and contractors Griffin Campbell and Sean Benschop for crafting a risky plan and starting work before securing permits.
Basciano, once dubbed the porn king of Times Square, was redeveloping a seedy block of Market Street at the edge of Philadelphia’s business hub. He and the Salvation Army were feuding over the demolition plan in the months and weeks leading up to the collapse, according to emails released by the city.
Basciano wanted access to the area above the Salvation Army, so he could use a bucket truck to remove the four-story brick wall by hand, as demolition experts recommend. But the negotiations stalled, even as Basciano’s lawyers warned of the risk to the public.
The delay “posed a threat to life, limb and public safety,” Basciano’s lawyers warned the Salvation Army.
However, an architect for the Salvation Army had found both buildings stable on May 20, and the charity was told no structural demolition would begin until the disputes were resolved, lawyer Eric Weiss said Tuesday. A video shot June 2 shows an excavator being used to tear down part of the building.
“They went in there, didn’t tell us, and started knocking things out,” Weiss said.
A criminal grand jury investigation is under way. Benschop, the only person charged to date, is due in court Sept. 17 for a preliminary hearing in his involuntary manslaughter case. His wife has called him a scapegoat. Lawyers for Benschop and Campbell did not immediately return calls for comment Tuesday.
The most seriously injured survivor, 52-year-old Mariya Plekan, filed suit last week over her injuries. She lost both legs after spending nearly 13 hours in the rubble.
The Simpson lawsuit was filed by her brother and executor, George B. Simpson of San Jose, Calif., on behalf of himself and their parents, Dr. Zachary W. Simpson and Starr Harris Simpson of Haverford.
Simpson had graduated from The New England Institute of Art near Boston and was pursuing a career in sound engineering. She had gone to the thrift store with friend Anne Bryan, 24, who was also killed. Bryan was the daughter of the Philadelphia’s city treasurer.