Civil suits will have to wait in Philly building collapse

 A painting and clothing rack remain in the Salvation Army Thrift Store the day after an adjacent building collapsed onto the shop. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A painting and clothing rack remain in the Salvation Army Thrift Store the day after an adjacent building collapsed onto the shop. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Philadelphia judge has delayed the start of all civil suits tied to this summer’s deadly building collapse in Center City.

The nine-month stay, recently issued by Common Pleas Court Judge Mark Bernstein, prevents lawyers from proceeding with the discovery phases of their cases.

Lawyers representing Griffin T. Campbell, the contractor hired to demolish the four-story building at 2136 Market St., filed the motion earlier this month asking for a delay to avoid potential self-incrimination.

The Philadelphia district attorney has convened a grand jury to investigate the collapse.

Bernstein’s ruling currently applies to all civil suits filed before the motion was issued at the end of last week.

Robert Mongeluzzi, who represents six survivors, said the decision is not unusual but has asked Bernstein to reconsider the delay.

“The less time you have, the less time you have to discover whether there were other potential defendants that we don’t know about at this time,” Mongeluzzi said.

A similar stay was granted when Pier 34 collapsed into the Delaware River in 2000, killing three.

At least one suit connected to the collapse is not currently affected by Bernstein’s order, issued Aug. 15.

On Monday, Andrew Stern filed a suit on behalf of Mariya Plekan, the 13th and final survivor pulled from the rubble.

Plekan lost her legs after she was trapped under debris for 13 hours and remains in critical condition at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Given his client’s condition, Stern has already asked that he be allowed to complete a trial deposition with Plekan.

“She’s at risk right now, and over the next several months, for imminent death and for that reason it’s important for me to preserve her testimony in the unfortunate event that could happen to her because her story will never to able to be told,” Stern said.

Regina Austin, a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School, said it’s important that other survivors also have that opportunity.

“Memories fade and there are health problems associated with being a victim that suggest that the proceedings should at least go forward with regard to the damage issue,” Austin said.

Messages left for Campbell’s lawyer were not immediately returned. Nor was one left for Judge Bernstein at his chambers.

If the motion remains, Mongeluzzi said his cases will likely last four, instead of three, years.

The June 5 collapse killed six people and injured 13 more.

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