As most people have heard, a vacant building being demolished on the corner of 22nd and Market, in Center City Philadelphia, collapsed into a thrift store this past Wednesday morning. The collapse resulted in 6 deaths and injuries to numerous people. This tragedy brings to mind the risk of building collapses in general, and the fact that as buildings age worldwide, these tragedies will likely increase.
Buildings are clearly at higher risk of collapse when demolition work is being performed. However, there are also numerous factors that can cause a building’s collapse even when it is not undergoing demolition. These factors include defective design, sub-standard and/or improperly specified materials, faulty construction, changes in subsurface conditions, failure to properly inspect the building during construction and upon completion, general deterioration to structural components caused by an owner’s failure to maintain the building, and overloading of the building’s structure. When a building collapses causing personal injuries or property damage, numerous parties, including the building owner, design professionals and contractors, may be held responsible for the resulting damages.
The potential claims that may be brought as a result of a building’s collapse include those for property damage, personal injury, wrongful death, worker’s compensation, and business interruption. The property owner could also bring breach of contract and negligence claims against the responsible design professionals and contractors to the extent that faulty design or workmanship contributed to or caused the collapse. Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will conduct an investigation into the cause of the collapse, and could assess heavy fines and penalties against those involved where violations are found.
To reduce the risk of these types of claims, building owners and construction professionals need to take all necessary precautions to ensure that both building erection and demolition are done pursuant to all applicable codes, regulations, and industry standards, that all required permits are obtained. Owners and contractors need to understand the significant risks that accompany any construction project, especially when demolition is involved, and take appropriate steps to make sure that adequate insurance is procured to cover the risk.
Owners also need to conduct regular maintenance and inspections of the building once construction is completed. On active construction sites, policies and procedures should be implemented to ensure that all surrounding areas are secured, particularly during any demolition work, and that applicable engineering and OSHA standards are followed to minimize the risk of such a catastrophe occurring.
Jonathan A. Cass is Partner and the Chair of the Insurance Coverage & Risk Management Group at Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC. He has extensive experience representing insureds and insurers in insurance coverage disputes.
Lori Wisniewski Azzara is an Associate at Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC. Lori practices in the areas of construction and has experience in contract negotiation, claims for delay and inefficiency, mechanics’ liens, green building and all types of contractual disputes.