Management company U.S. Facilities was responsible for maintaining the elevators that crashed in an incident at the Criminal Justice Center last year, but a recently-filed whistleblower case claims it ignored warnings about their safety.
According to the attorney representing a man partially paralyzed in last year’s crash, the whistleblower suit now puts his clients’ punitive damages claim front and center in the litigation.
“Even without [whistleblower plaintiff, Duilio Angelini's] lawsuit, punitive damages are in play, but now that he has come out and filed this complaint and given his allegations, punitive damages are definitely warranted,” said Michael Tinari, who is representing Paul Owens, a deputy sheriff for Philadelphia.
Owens was partially paralyzed in early August 2016 when an elevator malfunctioned and smashed into the CJC’s ceiling, which sent debris falling onto a second elevator. The crash involved restricted-access elevators used mostly by judges and court staff, and raised concerns throughout the Philadelphia legal community.
Owens’ lawsuit, which was filed in January, included allegations that the defendants were reckless and failed to notify the public of any warning signs regarding the elevators’ safety, but Tinari said the whistleblower lawsuit filed late last month bolsters those claims.
“In essence, Mr. Angelini clinches our suspicions that, not only was there negligence involved, but perhaps foul play on the part of the target defendants,” the Leonard, Sciolla, Hutchison, Leonard & Tinari attorney said.
According to Angelini’s complaint, which was filed July 26 by Bryn Mawr attorney Mark Schwartz, Angelini had worked for U.S. Facilities, a defendant in Owens’ case, but was fired after he raised numerous concerns about the safety of the elevators.
The complaint said Angelini reported “life safety issues” starting in December 2013, when he was the building manager for the CJC. He reportedly told his supervisors, according to the lawsuit, there had been concerns over maintenance problems and the elevators repeatedly being out of service. The complaint said the company allowed insufficient elevator mechanic coverage to take place, which meant elevators in other buildings the company maintained, including those in the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building, were prioritized over the elevators in the CJC.
Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel attorney David Seidman is representing U.S. Facilities.
Obermayer Rebmann chairman Thomas Leonard is a member of U.S. Facilities’ board, according to the complaint and confirmed by Seidman.
In an emailed statement, Seidman said company officials “strongly dispute the claims,” and said the lawsuit is “baseless and without merit, and we will vigorously defend ourselves against them.”
“This lawsuit is a shameless effort to use a tragic accident for an ex-employee’s personal financial gain in a sham complaint against U.S. Facilities,” Seidman said in the statement. “The circumstances surrounding the termination of this former employee on Feb. 3, 2017, have zero connection to the August incident.”
Seidman added that in the weeks before the accident, elevators at the CJC facility, including the ones involved in the accident, passed an independent and comprehensive inspection by the state.
Angelini’s suit includes allegations that in late 2013 U.S. Facilities entered into a contract with Schindler Elevator Corp. to maintain the elevators at the CJC. According to Angelini, the contract manager for U.S. Facilities had a brother who was the elevator superintendent at Schindler, and Angelini alleged that relationship was a conflict of interest that he brought to his supervisors.
He further alleged that, about a month after the August 2016 elevator crash, U.S. Facilities held a meeting where an official told attendees to be careful about what was told to the Philadelphia Department of Public Property commissioner regarding the brothers.
Schindler was not sued by Angelini, but the company is a defendant in the lawsuit Owens filed, as is U.S. Facilities. Schindler’s attorney in the Owens case, Keith Johnston of Lucas and Cavalier, declined to comment.
But Owens’ suit might not be the only lawsuit affected by Angelini’s whistleblower claims.
Schindler and U.S. Facilities are also defendants in a lawsuit filed in September last year by John Ross and Joseph Smith, who claimed they were injured in September 2014 when an elevator at 1301 Filbert St.—the address of the CJC—”dropped into a free fall, until it abruptly stopped a number of floors below.”
Angelini’s attorney said he has gotten numerous calls related to the whistleblower case.
“They’re coming out of the woodwork,” Schwartz said regarding attorneys he had spoken to about his client’s whistleblower case. “The suit really does speak for itself. It was something that took a lot of time to prepare.”
Ross and Smith are being represented by Trevose attorney John Manes Jr. Manes did not return a call for comment.
Theodore Schaer of Zarwin Baum DeVito Kaplan Schaer Toddy, who is representing U.S. Facilities in Owens and Ross, did not return a call seeking comment. Francis Deasey and Lauren Steins of Deasey, Mahoney & Valentini are representing Schindler in Ross. The attorneys also did not return a message seeking comment.
Since filing Owens’ case, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Arnold New has issued eight orders compelling parties to produce records for the litigation, and Tinari said he now has “a voluminous amount of documents.”
Tinari and Schwartz agreed that, given the overlap in the cases, they might share discovery in their cases.
“He seems very interested in what I have to say,” Schwartz said about Tinari. “I went over this a lot with [Angelini]. He’s a guy a lot of people admire. He has a lot of credibility, and he took a lot of notes.”
Shimberg & Friel attorney Nancy Nolan, who represented thyssenkrupp, a defendant in Ross and Owens, declined to comment. Sharon Ulak, an assistant city solicitor who is representing the Philadelphia Municipal Authority in those cases, did not return a request for comment.
A spokesman for the City Law Department declined to comment on the case.