Philly is still reeling from the horrific Center City building collapse last week. Every conversation I’ve had included both shock over the poor oversight of high-risk work like demolition and the conclusion that, surely, the City will be sued and will pay something towards the victims. Most everyone, including other lawyers who don’t do catastrophic injury work, are shocked to hear that it is unlikely that the City will be liable.
The primary cause of disaster is obvious: the work crew performed appallingly amateurish work. Taking down a building literally joined to other buildings isn’t rocket science, but it still requires structural engineering work. First, per OSHA, “an engineering survey shall be made, by a competent person, of the structure to determine the condition of the framing, floors, and walls, and possibility of unplanned collapse of any portion of the structure,” and then steps need to be taken to avoid such “unplanned collapses,” such as by braces, or shoring, or helical piers, or all three, and then, in all likelihood, the structure needs to be taken down manually.
What you don’t do is what property owner Richard C. Basciano apparently did: pay some bankrupt company $10,000 to rip the thing down with sledgehammers and an excavator, and then get it “expedited” by an architect who never bothers to review the demolition plan. The general rule is that “a landowner who engages an independent contractor is not responsible for the acts or omissions of such independent contractor or his employees,” Beil v. Telesis Const., Inc., 11 A.3d 456 (Pa. 2011), which would seem to absolve Basciano, but that rule is subject to a number of exceptions, like the “dangerous condition,” “retained control,” and “peculiar risk” exceptions. For a discussion of all three, see Farabaugh v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Com’n, 911 A.2d 1264 (Pa. 2006). It is in general hard to pin liability on a property owner, but this situation looks nothing like your typical by-the-book demolition.