Criminal Charges and Civil Suits Possible in Deadly Blaze
A deadly blaze erupted in an abandoned warehouse in Philadelphia last week, killing two firefighters and injuring two others when a wall fell on them while they were extinguishing the fire. Yesterday the city announced a grand jury would convene to look into the possibility of criminal charges against the owners of the building, which had been the subject of numerous complaints and citations for disrepair. Could the owners also face civil suits stemming from their negligence and failure to maintain their property?
- Serious criminal charges may prove difficult to make stick
- Family of deceased firefighters could seek civil action
- Residents have little recourse against nuisance buildings
Holes From Floor to Roof
Neighbors of the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building worried for years that it could go up in flames. An account from a witness from two years ago described an “unsecured building with ‘holes from the floor through to the roof’ and ‘combustible materials’ strewn around with garbage and industrial equipment. There was also ample evidence, like bedding and recently opened containers of food, that people had been living in the building.” In response to complaints, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections had written three citations to the owners of the building, New York-based brothers Michael, Nahman, and Yechiel Lichtenstein, for not taking care of the property or taking steps to keep out squatters.
Despite the citations, the owners didn’t seem in any hurry to fix up the structure. In an interview two weeks before the fire, Michael Lichtenstein told a reporter to “buzz off” when questioned about the dilapidated condition and unpaid taxes on his property. Now, the city is suggesting the Lichtensteins could face various charges like risking a catastrophe or criminal negligence.
High Degree of Negligence
Despite the high-profile nature of the fire, prosecutors might have a difficult time making the charges stick. “A high degree of negligence is required to warrant criminal liability,” says Dean Weitzman, a personal injury lawyer in Philadelphia. “Typically this might occur in the case of a club owner who allows twice the amount of patrons into the club than the legal limit, a fire negligently occurs and the patrons die. This was the situation a few years ago in Florida. This is an extreme situation. Typically criminal liability does not attach from accidental fires.”
Family members of the deceased firefighters might have a more clear path to justice through a civil suit. “As a general statement, if the injuries are caused by the failure of the owner to maintain the premises, the injured party may sue the landowner to recover for the damages sustained,” Weitzman says. “All property owners, including landlords, have a common law duty to maintain their property in a safe condition.”
Unfortunately for the neighbors of the destroyed Philly warehouse, there was little they could do through the legal system even though they knew the building was a danger.
“Typically, enforcement of zoning, building and nuisance laws do not allow a private right of action,” Weitzman explains. “Municipal enforcement of these laws results only in a fine being assessed against the property owner. Historically, property owners, especially in major metropolitan areas, tend to ignore the fines. Where the violation is, or becomes serious enough, the municipality can apply to the court for injunctive relief which can lead to seizure of the property. This is an expensive and time-consuming process and, if successful, saddles the municipality with the cost of correcting the deficiencies in the property.”
The city could have sealed the building prior to the fire to keep vandals and drug addicts from getting inside (the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined but human activity may have played a role), but declined to do so because it would have cost $20,000. Officials claim they had been planning to take the owners to court over their repeated code violations.
No Good Solutions
The Lichtensteins also owed nearly $60,000 in taxes on the property, as well as hundreds of thousands more on other real estate they own in Philadelphia. “Often, the owners have failed to pay taxes for years on property allowing the municipality to seize the property for unpaid taxes,” says Weitzman. “However, once again the municipality finds itself with a non-income producing problem property. In older cities, such as Philadelphia, where there is a large inventory of old, decaying industrial buildings and major stress on budgets, enforcing these laws often takes a back seat to other financial obligations of the municipality.”
So what can residents do when living next to an imminent danger? “The only viable option for neighbors is to complain to their elected representatives from the mayor on down and to present solutions as to what to do with these properties once the city takes possession of the property,” the lawyer says.
In the case of the hosiery building, neighbors did the right thing, complaining to the city over and over again. Unfortunately, nothing was done to correct the dangerous environment until it was too late.
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