Widows Sue Over Garage Collapse At A.C. Casino

In what is believed to be the first legal challenge to stem from last month’s parking-garage collapse at the Tropicana Casino Resort, the widows of two construction workers filed a wrongful-death lawsuit yesterday against the casino and construction companies involved in the project.

In a complaint filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, Nancy Wittland and Joleen Bigelow allege that negligence on the part of the companies caused the Oct. 30 construction-site accident that killed ironworkers Michael Wittland, 53, of Pleasantville, N.J., and James Bigelow Sr., 29, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

Two concrete workers were also killed and two dozen other workers were injured when the top five decks of what was to become a 10-floor, 2,400-space parking garage suddenly gave way as concrete was being poured on the top floor.

The complaint names Philadelphia-based Keating Building Corp., general contractor on the project; Fabi Construction of Egg Harbor Township, which oversaw the concrete work; and the casino and its management company, Adamar of New Jersey Inc., and their parent company, the Phoenix-based Aztar Corp.

It also names Mid-State Filigree Systems of Cranbury, N.J., alleging the company supplied a defective product. The company provided made-to-order, prefabricated concrete slabs that formed the foundation for the garage decks.

The complaint seeks an unspecified amount in damages.

But at a news conference at JFK Plaza, in front of Keating’s Philadelphia headquarters, Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney representing the widows, said the families were not most concerned about the money.

“It’s about what happened to their loved ones and making sure it never happens again,” Mongeluzzi said.

The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration is leading the investigation into the collapse. Mongeluzzi said he had retained his own team of experts – including the federal government’s lead investigator into the Oklahoma City bombing and World Trade Center collapses after Sept. 11, 2001 – to conduct his own probe.

He said the floors of the Tropicana parking garage did not appear to be connected to an outer wall. He also said there did not appear to be a sufficient support system to hold up the upper decks of the garage while the concrete on them dried.

Typically, poles are placed in between the floors for this purpose and are removed when the concrete is dry enough to support itself.

Mongeluzzi said construction workers interviewed had told him that Fabi, which was simultaneously doing work at the nearby Resorts casino, was sharing poles between the two sites. The poles that were in place during the days before the collapse were bowing under the pressure from above, they told Mongeluzzi. Supervisors were made aware of the situation, Mongeluzzi said.

The allegations brought an immediate retort from Keating officials. In a statement, they said they had brought in their own team of forensic engineers, also involved in the investigation of the World Trade Center collapse.

“The families and everyone involved deserve to have an accurate account of what happened,” the statement said. “At this point, no one with any credibility can claim to know the true cause. Grandstanding and news conferences don’t get us any closer to the truth.”

Keating spokesman Jason Rocker added: “As of today, no one has conducted any tests on any materials involved in the collapse.”

Phyllis Watt, who works in accounting at Fabi and answered the phone yesterday, said company officials “have no comment at this point.”

Maureen Siman, spokeswoman for the casino and management company Adamar, declined comment, citing company policy on pending litigation. Joe Cole, a spokesman for parent company Aztar, cited the same company policy.

Eugene McDermott, executive vice president of Mid-State Filigree Systems, did not return a call for comment.

Other lawsuits are expected to follow. Mongeluzzi said that as soon as next week, he would file suit on behalf of five men injured in the collapse.

Philadelphia lawyer Stewart Eisenberg said he also expected to file suits next week on behalf of three concrete workers who were injured.

Both Mongeluzzi and Eisenberg said they would file in Philadelphia, as opposed to Atlantic County, where the collapsed occurred, to ensure a fair trial.

“It is difficult to ask a jury in a county like Atlantic County, whose whole economy depends on the casino industry, to stand in judgment of that industry,” Mongeluzzi said.

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