Civil Liability vs. Criminal Culpability: The Case Against a Demolition Contractor

On June 5, 2013 a building collapse occurred on 21st and Market Streets in Philadelphia. At the time of the incident the building owner had contracted with a demolition contractor to tear down the existing structure with the intent on eventually developing the location. Six people died in the collapse and thirteen suffered very serious injuries including a double amputation. As expected, families of the deceased and the injured persons filed civil lawsuits against the building contractor, the City of Philadelphia, and the building owners. These lawsuits continue as of the date of this writing. In addition to the civil lawsuits, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office convened a county investigating grand jury to determine whether sufficient evidence existed for criminal charges against the building contractor. On November 22, 2013 the grand jury found “reasonable grounds” for criminal charges against the building contractor.

While many may believe that results of the grand jury equate to guilt it is important to understand that a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge can still dismiss this entire case if the prosecution fails to meet its burden of proof at a preliminary hearing scheduled for February 18, 2014. Even if the assigned Municipal Court judge does not dismiss the charges against the contractor the prosecution must meet a much higher burden at a criminal trial. The investigating grand jury standard of proof as well as the preliminary hearing standard of proof are very similar to the standard in civil matters. While the standard at a criminal trial is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard in a civil trial is “by a preponderance of the evidence”.

The investigating grand jury found reasonable grounds for the charges of murder (third degree), involuntary manslaughter, recklessly endangering another person, causing a catastrophe, risking a catastrophe, and criminal conspiracy. While the murder charge is by far the most serious charge, the contractor still faces substantial jail time even if he is acquitted on this lead charge. The catastrophe charges are third degree felonies with a maximum penalty of seven years on each charge. The murder charge is a first degree felony and subjects the contractor to a possible maximum sentence of forty years on each count. The contractor is charged with six counts.

Despite the allegations the contractor still maintains a presumption of innocence and the prosecution must overcome a much higher burden then the Plaintiff’s attorneys who filed lawsuits against him. The investigating grand jury’s findings detailed the cause of the collapse which was allegedly improper demolition procedures at the sight. These findings, however, may not necessarily result in a criminal conviction. Even if the prosecution presents expert witnesses who can testify as to building demolition along with former demolition workers at the site, there are more than likely no photographs of the interior prior to the collapse. Similar to the civil case, however, the criminal matter may “settle” through a negotiated guilty plea but the contractor’s defense attorney will more than likely test the veracity of the Commonwealth’s case during the preliminary hearing. While the defense can waive the preliminary hearing they will more than likely not elect to do so unless the Commonwealth conveys a very favorable plea offer. Given the charges, however, any plea offers will more than likely carry substantial jail sentence and the contractor, following the advice and counsel of his attorney, may elect to contest all of the charges.

The civil Plaintiff attorneys involved in this case will more than likely follow the criminal case against the contractor and utilize any evidence brought out in the criminal case to settle the civil action. The prosecution may even utilize some of the civil investigation in its case through the use of subpoenas. This investigation may not provide the prosecution with enough evidence as scientific assumptions and conclusions can still present plenty of room for reasonable doubt. The building collapse is obviously a tragedy but serves as an example of the stark difference between the standards in civil and criminal courtrooms. This distinction is important and the main factor which every attorney involved in this case (criminally or civilly) will use to prepare his or her case for trial.