Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Contractors May Be on Hook for Missing Art

(CN) - Companies who inspected a Philadelphia home slated for demolition must face claims that they trespassed and converted antiques worth more than $10 million, a federal judge ruled.

The dispute stems from a partial wall collapse at a building owned by Win and Son Inc. and Huan Yi Yu on West Albanus Street, a neighborhood consisting primarily of multi-family homes in north-central Philadelphia.

Following the collapse, Gerard James, a city inspector, prepared an emergency duty report, and it is undisputed that the city made three attempts to mail violation notices to the plaintiffs. However, the plaintiffs say, it failed to send these notices to the firm's New York City "address for service" on file.

The city had no such difficulty sending copies of the notices to Synertech Inc., Mr. D's Plumbing and Heating Inc., and USA Environmental Management Inc. (USAEM), the plaintiffs claim, entities with which it had routine working relationships.

After USAEM proposed on June 18 to demolish the property, the city signed a demolition contract with the company, as well as an "asbestos inspection contract" with Synertech, and an unspecified "services contract" with Mr. D's, Win and Son says.

The work began with an asbestos inspection that took place on June 20, 2011, and it was only then, and for the first time, that Win and Son learned of planned demolition the plaintiffs say.

The next day, Mr. D's allegedly began inspections, and USAEM won its demolition bid.

At the time, the owners say, they were storing about 7,000 antiques and art pieces made of wood, stone, glass, bronze, and porcelain in the building, and that these artworks were valued at more than $10 million.

They claim that before, during, and after the demolition, the city and its contractors moved valuables onto the street to sell them or convert them for personal use.

Though Win and Son sent a representative, who found that the property was undergoing "demolition, inspection, and the like," Philadelphia and its contractors allegedly refused to allow the owners to enter the remaining portions of the structure to salvage their belongings.

Win and Son say they had no way to stop, postpone, or appeal the demolition before the work had been started and completed by the end of November 2011.

The city later sent Win and Son a notice of abatement, detailing costs totaling nearly $50,000 for the demolition, asbestos inspection, and to "seal abandoned lateral."

Win and Son filed an eight-count complaint against the city, its licenses department, and the contractors, asserting claims for negligence, conversion, trespass, and violations of due process and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures under the 14th Amendment.

U.S. District Judge John Padova dismissed the negligence claims against Synertech and Mr. D's Feb. 18, finding that they had no duty to safeguard Win and Son's possessions, or notify the plaintiffs of code violations - a responsibility of the city alone.

Tossing aside Win and Son's "conclusory" claim that Mr. D's and Synertech were state actors "drape[d] with the power of the city," the judge rejected the Section 1983 claims, as well.

"The complaint does not specifically describe the work done by Synertech and Mr. D's, much less describe any specific judgments that the city delegated to Synertech and/or Mr. D's pursuant to their contracts or otherwise," Padova wrote.

The court upheld the trespass claim, however, as well as the conversion claim.

"Prior to any discovery being conducted, we will not fault plaintiffs for failing to identify the precise defendants with access who actually converted their property," Padova wrote. "We instead conclude that it is sufficient for plaintiffs to allege that each defendant had access during the relevant time period, and that someone with access converted their property."

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