Robert Mongeluzzi

It was only two days after the 2013 Salvation Army building collapse that attorney Robert Mongeluzzi faced his first dilemma in the case.

The scene at 22nd and Market streets was still a tangle of brick and splintered wooden planks. Nearly 20 people had been removed from the rubble. Six of them were dead before they could be found, and a seventh would die soon after. Those who survived were only just beginning to treat injuries that would last them a lifetime.

City officials were also anxious to have the mountain of debris removed. The rubble, which took up nearly half a city block, was a hazard, and they planned to start clearing the site the weekend after the collapse.

But the Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett and Bendesky attorney, who had been retained the day before by the mother of a young woman killed in the collapse, thought otherwise. Based on years handling building collapse cases, Mongeluzzi was sure the rubble contained key clues about who was at fault and what could have been done to prevent the fatal incident.

On June 7, after talking the issue over with the grieving mother, a restraining order was filed barring the city from clearing the site, and by June 9—four days after the collapse—the legal team was able to access the rubble. The findings, according to Mongeluzzi, allowed them to begin building a case that, four years later, would result in the longest trial in Pennsylvania history and a record-breaking $227 million settlement.

“It was a very sensitive thing. It certainly wasn’t an issue, or decision that we took lightly … I explained the rationale and what I was grappling and wrestling with, and in the long run, it was the correct choice,” Mongeluzzi said. “From the very beginning there were decisions made that ultimately played a very important role in the outcome of the case.”

Mongeluzzi, who is a finalist for The Legal’s 2018 Attorney of the Year, said the decision was tough, but it wouldn’t be the last challenge the team of lawyers representing the 19 plaintiffs had to make as they litigated the case.

According to Mongeluzzi, there were coverage challenges from the outset. Although the lawsuit is often referred to as the Salvation Army building collapse case, the company’s store only collapsed after a neighboring building that was being demolished fell on top of it. The owner of that building, which was called the Hoagie City building, and the architect heading the demolition project, both had limited policies, and two men involved in performing the demolition were eventually charged criminally for their conduct. That left the Salvation Army as the main defendant in the case.

The problem was the Salvation Army is a nationally recognized charitable organization, and some of their employees had also died in the collapse. The team of attorneys knew it would be a heavy lift to convince a jury that the organization was anything but another victim in the case.

Added to that, the demolition project was cited multiple times for OSHA violations, and the city License & Inspection officer who visited the site in the lead-up to the collapse committed suicide soon after. And without joint-and-several liability, that meant the Salvation Army could duck paying a substantial portion of the award unless it was hit with more than 60 percent liability for the conduct.

The plaintiffs, however, had a few things going in their favor.

The first thing was timing.

Although Mongeluzzi was able to get access to the site only a few days after the collapse, he had actually been on the scene much earlier. According to Mongeluzzi, on the day of the collapse, he was only a few blocks away taking a deposition in another case—one that involved another demolition-related collapse. Mongeluzzi said he was able to take a look at the scene when the depositions broke for lunch.

“I was looking at the scene, not just as an observer, but as someone who thought he might be involved down the road,” he said.

Some members of the public also sent the lawyers photographs of the site in the days before the collapse, which showed how precariously the demolition project was progressing, and the plaintiffs also came across a mountain of emails sent from the Hoagie City building owner’s right-hand man to Salvation Army officials, saying that the demolition was dangerous.

Although several defendants agreed the emails were mostly puffery written so the building company could access the Salvation Army’s roof in order to do the demolition project more cheaply, the combination of those messages and the photographs formed the basis of their litigation strategy, which was that the Salvation Army was negligent for not at least inspecting the demolition project.

Although Mongeluzzi went first in openings and closings, he said he did not see himself as the lead attorney in the case. Along with several other attorneys, including Jeff Goodman from Saltz Mongeluzzi, Steven G. Wigrizer of Wapner, Newman, Wigrizer, Brecher & Miller; Cohen Placitella & Roth attorney Harry Roth, and Andy Stern of Kline & Specter, who often led the charge against the Salvation Army defendants specifically, it was a team effort, Mongeluzzi said.

“We were a band of brothers and I was happy to be a part of it,” he said.

One of the last big challenges in the case came at the closing arguments in the form of the legendary Sprague & Sprague attorney Dick Sprague. During the nearly five months prior to the closings, the then-91-year-old Sprague had sat silently at the defense table for his client, the Hoagie City building owner, and watched the younger lawyers battle it out. When he finally did speak, that silence and courtroom presence only magnified the importance of his arguments, which focused as much on what he called the “bluster” and style of the plaintiff lawyers as it did on his client’s conduct.

Mongeluzzi said he, and many other attorneys in that courtroom, had looked up to Sprague their entire careers. This was the first time Mongeluzzi had ever faced off against him.

After Philadelphia Judge Teresa Sarmina, who presided over the trial, gave Mongeluzzi the go-ahead to give his rebuttal, Mongeluzzi said, all he could think of was that this was the moment he’d been waiting for all his career.

“You’ve got to be up for the challenge, and say, ‘Hey. It’s showtime. Let’s do this,’” he said. “And we did it.”

A celebratory event will be held at the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia on June 27 to honor The Legal’s Professional Excellence Award winners and finalists. For more information, contact Andre Sutton at asutton@alm.com or 757-721-9020.