Many of you may remember the collapse of a partially demolished building into a Salvation Army thrift store that killed 6 people and injured 14 in Philadelphia on June 5, 2013. The criminal trial against the demolition contractor is currently underway. He is charged with 6 counts of third-degree murder in addition to other charges and is facing a possible life sentence. The crane operator—the only other party to be criminally charged—pleaded guilty to 6 counts of involuntary manslaughter and is facing a prison term of 10 to 20 years.
In exchange for being the prosecution’s key witness, the architect monitoring the demolition was granted immunity. The architect testified that he had been to the site the evening before and was alarmed to see an unsupported brick wall looming next to the Salvation Army building. He said that he told the demolition contractor to take down the wall immediately and claimed he was stunned when told the next morning that the building had collapsed since he thought the wall had been taken down. The lawyer representing victims in the civil lawsuit stated that it was clear from depositions that the architect knew there was no way the contractor could have removed the wall overnight.
The defense attorney has argued that the architect should have been criminally charged for allowing the Salvation Army to open with an unstable wall towering above. He stated that a licensed architect should have immediately alerted authorities to the “imminent danger” despite having a contract that only held him responsible for monitoring the demolition, with no control over construction means and methods or safety.
Case law has articulated that a professional duty may prevail over a contractual provision to the contrary. Schinnerer’s Management Advisory on “Safety at the Construction Site” contains the following recommendations:
If a condition not amounting to a clear and present danger is observed, reasonableness suggests it should be reported to the person most capable of remedying the situation—the construction superintendent, for instance.
If the danger is more critical or recurring, could threaten the safety of adjacent areas, or indicates an inability of the contractor to meet contractual or legal requirements, contractual or legal requirements, contractual obligations and good sense suggests that it be reported to the owner (who retains the power to stop the work) and perhaps to government officials.
If the danger is imminent, prudence and professionalism require immediate action.
The architect may have avoided criminal charges, but he is a defendant in numerous civil lawsuits. This accident has also resulted in the city of Philadelphia instituting new demolition standards designed to prevent similar tragedies.