Judge: Contractor guilty in fatal Philly building collapse can be deposed in civil action [updated]

 A four-story building collapsed on 22 and Market Streets June 5, 2013.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

A four-story building collapsed on 22 and Market Streets June 5, 2013. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Convicted general contractor Griffin Campbell may be deposed before the start of the consolidated civil trial tied to 2013’s deadly building collapse in Center City.

A Philadelphia judge made that ruling after hearing arguments from both sides Monday afternoon.

Robert Mongeluzzi, one of the lawyers who is part of the civil case, said, “We’re pleased that we’ve taken another step in a long journey towards justice for these victims.”

In October, a jury found Campbell guilty of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and other offenses for his role in the collapse at 22nd and Market streets that killed six and injured 13 others.

Campbell testified during his trial, but his lawyer didn’t want his client to participate in the civil proceedings. Bill Hobson said that would violate Campbell’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and make it harder to win a criminal appeal.

“In addition to the record of trial that the commonwealth can use to defend against the appeal, now you have a five-day deposition that can explore areas well beyond his direct and criminal testimony,” said Hobson.

Civil litigators argued that Campbell waived his Fifth Amendment rights as soon as he started answering questions on the stand last month.

“It’s like being pregnant,” said veteran prosecutor George Parry, who is not connected to the case. “You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You either have a Fifth Amendment privilege or you don’t.”

Parry said the record of a criminal appeal can’t be supplemented with civil testimony.

Mongeluzzi said more than 100 people could be deposed by prosecutors before the trial begins in September.

“The families asked us to do three things. One was to find out what happened. Anytime you lose a loved one, part of closure is to find out what really happened. Secondly, is to make sure it never happens again,” he said.

“Really, it’s only last that compensation is No. 3 because there’s no way to adequately compensate someone who has lost a child or a parent or a spouse or a brother or sister.”

Under Pennsylvania law, plaintiffs can’t request a specific amount in damages.

The list of witnesses includes the building’s owner, Richard Basciano, who wasn’t criminally charged.

Prosecutors also want to depose Sean Benschop, the excavator operator who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter as part of a plea deal that spared him from a potential third-degree murder conviction.

Bill Davis, Benschop’s criminal lawyer, said he’s not part of the civil case and that another attorney has yet to enter an appearance.

Benschop, 44,  and Campbell, 51, were the only two arrested after a freestanding, three-story wall of a building being demolished pancaked onto a neighboring Salvation Army Thrift Store.

According to testimony, several people warned Campbell about the wall, including the night before the collapse.

At trial, Benschop said that Campbell instructed him to chip away at the building’s eastern wall the day of the collapse. Not long afterward, the wall came down.

The pair will be sentenced Jan. 8. The two are facing the same charges.

Under Benschop’s plea deal, he cannot be sentenced to more than 20 years. Campbell was offered the same deal, but rejected it.

 

Editor’s note: A correction was made to reflect that state law bars plaintiffs from seeking a specific amount in damages.

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