On May 25, Andy Stern and Elizabeth Crawford obtained an arbitration award of $95.6 million for a Philadelphia woman catastrophically injured in the 2013 Market Street building collapse. It was the largest-ever personal injury recovery for a single person in Pennsylvania history. It followed a 17-week trial that ended in a liability verdict and a subsequent settlement of $227 million for the seven people killed and 12 injured in the tragedy. The Salvation Army, found 75 percent liable at trial, was to pay the lion’s share of the settlement. It had operated a thrift shop adjacent to a building under demolition, a shop at which Plekan had been shopping at the time of the collapse. A New York real estate speculator who owned the building being demolished was also to pay part of the settlement.
Stern, who years earlier won a Pennsylvania record $100 million verdict in a medical malpractice case, and Crawford talked about his latest major courtroom victory:
Q: Can you explain why your client, Mariya Plekan, received by far the largest single share of the total settlement?
Stern: Ms. Plekan was the most catastrophically injured plaintiff, buried alive in the rubble for 13 hours and sustaining the loss of the lower half of her body. She has endured 30 surgeries and lost her voice because of all the time she spent on a respirator. She had uncontested substantial and unprecedented non-economic damages relating to past or future pain and suffering, emotional distress, disfigurement and loss of enjoyment of life and life’s pleasures. She is 55-years-old and her compassion and strength is awe inspiring. I think one of the most motivating factors in her life is her children and grandchildren. However, except for the limited contact Ms. Plekan has with her children and granddaughter, every enjoyable element of her life has been permanently destroyed.
Q: What went into the preparation for the trial and what were some of the difficulties in dealing with so many other lawyers representing 19 clients?
Stern: Everyone’s clients’ interests were different, which made targeting the Salvation Army challenging. Some were grieving the losses of loved ones knowing that the litigation or settlement monies would never bring their loved one back to life, some did not have claims against the Salvation Army, and some believed that the most culpable parties were defendants with essentially no ability to properly compensate the victims. Ms. Plekan had extraordinary economic damage claims relating to her future medical expenses totaling over $50 million dollars, as well as unprecedented conscious pain and suffering claims, and so she desperately needed just and fair compensation.
Q: What was the toughest part of this lengthy litigation?
Stern: The toughest aspect of this pre-trial litigation process and trial was targeting the Salvation Army, which is a well-respected charity that is otherwise a sympathetic defendant. It was risky for me to focus my case on this defendant, but I chose that path in light of my belief that instead of “doing the most good,” this defendant did the most harm that led to this catastrophic building collapse. Simply put, the Salvation Army had intentionally and inexcusably failed to protect their customers and employees by ignoring repeated safety warnings associated with the next-door demolition activity. Although there were other defendants who had been found criminally culpable, it was our contention that this was the first trial in which the jurors had the opportunity to evaluate the conduct of all potentially responsible parties in one courtroom setting.
Q: Was there a “key” or turning point in the case.
Stern: Yes, it was when the jury returned the very favorable liability verdict and found the Salvation Army 75 percent liable for this tragedy, which included claims of negligence, intentional misrepresentation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and punitive damages. At that point, the Salvation Army recognized that the ability to successfully appeal a finding of 75 percent negligence was highly unlikely and they had no choice but to finally settle the matter for an appropriate sum of money along with the other defendants. All plaintiffs shared in a record settlement in Pennsylvania in the amount of $227 million. This allowed the victims to be properly compensated and for my client, Mariya Plekan, it included sums of money that would finally allow her to get the proper medical care and treatment, as well as appropriate living accommodations with her family, which she so desperately deserved.
Q: What was your client’s reaction to her award?
Crawford: Mariya Plekan was very happy when she received news of the award and is excited about the prospect of being able to live in her own home in Philadelphia with her children, along with in-house skilled nursing care to monitor and care for her compromised medical condition. She is also thankful for our constant efforts to get this matter concluded so that she can finally receive her settlement funds, despite continued delays by certain individuals.
Q (for Crawford): What did this four-year litigation and the 17-week trial teach you as a younger lawyer that may be helpful for other younger lawyers?
Crawford: Undoubtedly, it was a very humbling experience being around those deemed among the best trial lawyers in Philadelphia, both on the plaintiffs' side and the defense. I think everyone may have felt that way at one point or another. But, I think that as a young lawyer, it can be easier to initially be intimidated by more experienced lawyers, especially in a deposition or in a courtroom. This experience taught me that there are certain times, even as a young lawyer, when it is important to stand up and speak for what is in the best interest of your client. The best way to be able to do that as a young lawyer is to know the law inside and out and have the ability, particularly in a courtroom, to cite a case or a rule. Perhaps even more challenging is that sometimes in this litigation process you have to be comfortable with not being everyone's “best friend” while still keeping everything professional and recognizing that our primary goal is serving our client's needs.