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As City Council Probes Deadly Building Collapse, Official Says City Can’t Be Held Liable

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(File photo: Philadelphia firefighters and police respond at the scene of the building collapse on June 5th that killed six people.  Credit: Jordan McLaughlin)

(File photo: Philadelphia firefighters and police respond at the scene of the building collapse on June 5th that killed six people. Credit: Jordan McLaughlin)

Mike Dunn Mike Dunn
Mike Dunn is City Hall bureau chief for KYW Newsradio 1060. He covers...
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By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Today brings the first hearing in City Council’s own investigation into this month’s deadly building collapse on Market Street (see related story).

While the district attorney (related story) and OSHA probe the specifics of the incident, City Council is focused on broader issues such as permitting and inspections.

And as lawsuits stemming from the collapse are filed by victims, an official says the city is immune from financial liability.

Even if city regulations on demolitions were lax, it is considered unlikely that City Hall could be held liable in any of the lawsuits that result from the building collapse, because of the principle of sovereign immunity.

(City solicitor Shelley Smith, in file photo.)

(City solicitor Shelley Smith, in file photo.)

“The city is immune from suit for tort liability except in eight specifically enumerated circumstances,” notes the mayor’s top attorney, solicitor Shelley Smith.

She says none of those eight circumstances — most of which involve city-owned properties or city-owned utilities — apply in this building collapse case.

“This building collapse does not fall into any of those enumerated exceptions,” she tells KYW Newsradio.

Private attorneys assessing the question say a victim who sues City Hall would need to prove the city showed reckless indifference toward the situation on Market Street.  That, they say, may prove difficult given that the current permitting and inspection regulations — which even the mayor now admits were insufficient — appear to have been followed.

And Smith says the lack of tougher regulations does not make the city liable.

“Failure to enact regulations doesn’t fall within any of the eight exceptions to immunity,” she explains.

But is the city’s apparent immunity fair?   Solicitor Smith says that in general, limits on any city’s liabilities are proper.

“The government, simply because we are here, and because it happened here, is not the insurer that nothing will ever go wrong.  To hold it responsible for each and every thing it might have failed to do, or people might think it should have done, is just not a reasonable or predictable allocation of taxpayer resources,” she says.

Six people died and thirteen others were injured in the collapse on June 5th.  Several lawsuits against the building owner and demolition company have already been filed, and more are expected.

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