The Freedom Valley Chronicles: The Millennium Fire – Part Nineteen Legal Settlement

The Millennium Fire caused tremendous problems in Conshohocken in 2008. Damage to buildings. Destruction of personal property. Devastation to individuals. Death for some animals.

People lost items both ordinary and sentimental.

You may hear it stated that legal settlements are designed to make people whole again. To provide closure.

But in many cases, that’s rare.

In situations like the Millennium Fire, it is impossible to make someone whole again. You can replace a toothbrush. You can replace a toaster.

You cannot replace the wedding ring you had placed on the kitchen countertop as you washed dishes. You cannot replace the scrapbook of photographs you had stored on the top shelf of your closet.

“The heirlooms were irreplaceable,” stated Mr. Patrick Howard, one of the attorneys of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky that represented the class of tenants affected by the Millennium Fire. “The memories, priceless. We tried to be sensitive to those losses, but no financial settlement would change what had happened.” Mr. Howard today is a partner with Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky.

But the fact of the matter is that a legal settlement – with all its potential imperfections – is usually the best alternative in large-scale disasters.

In the case of the Millennium Fire, the legal settlement was reached in about 14 months. While that may sound like a long time to reach an agreement, several lawyers indicated that it was quite speedy given the circumstances.

“In many cases,” stated Mr. Edmund Campbell, “Settlements can take a number of years to reach in situations like the one in Conshohocken.” Mr. Campbell was one of the attorneys representing O’Neill Properties Group, the developer of Millennium in Conshohocken. Mr. Campbell today is a partner with Campbell Rocco Law.

Both Mr. Howard and Mr. Campbell confirmed that Judge S. Gerald Corso of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County recognized early on that spending time and money fighting in courtrooms would not be the best course of action.

“Judge Corso strongly encouraged an overall legal settlement rather than having the involved parties argue their points in a courtroom,” stated Mr. Howard.

With that encouragement, all parties agreed to attempt mediation rather than court trials.

Retired Judge James Melinson acted as a mediator between all of the parties through JAMS, an alternative dispute resolution provider. Mr. Melinson had previously served as the Chief United States Magistrate Judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and as a Judge of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. JAMS has offices in Philadelphia as well as throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.

The fire devastated Riverwalk At Millennium.

A year after the fire, there was still no settlement.

“On the one-year anniversary of the fire – August 13, 2009, our law firm held a news conference to highlight the lack of progress,” stated Mr. Howard. “We displayed photos that showed the precise spot where the fire started. Time lapse photos showed how quickly the fire spread at the construction site of the Stables At Millennium.”

Seven weeks later, Mr. Melinson brought together upwards of 25 people representing all of the parties – both defendants and plaintiffs – in all of the legal actions underway in the courts. Among the assembled group were the attorneys and representatives of the owners of the real estate, the construction companies, the tenants, and their associated insurance firms. The individuals met together at 1717 Arch Street in Center City Philadelphia on October 7, 2009.

Both Mr. Howard and Mr. Campbell were among the attorneys brought together by Mr. Melinson on that day in September of 2009.

“The day did not start with optimism from many of us,” explained Mr. Howard. “But the directive from the retired judge was clear: He demanded that no one leave that day until an overall settlement was reached. He had both lunch and dinner brought into the meetings.”

“[Retired] Judge Melinson helped motivate everyone,” stated Mr. Howard. “He moved between the different groups of people to mediate a settlement. He worked tirelessly.”

According to Mr. Howard, the meetings began at 9:00 AM. He indicated that by 10:00 PM, settlement was reached.

“Mr. Brian O’Neill [of O’Neill Properties Group] was critical in the settlement talks,” indicated Mr. Campbell. “He struck a balance – looking at the big picture and taking a long-term view. He didn’t get stuck in the weeds.”

Mr. Howard concurred. “Mr. [Brian] O’Neill was a driving force to help get the issues resolved and to do the right thing for everyone.”

A summary of the class action settlement was placed as a legal advertisement in The Philadelphia Inquirer on November 6, 2009.

At a news conference announcing the settlement agreement for the Millennium Fire, Mr. O’Neill made several comments:

“The day that this fire occurred, we made up our minds that it was an absolute, monumental tragedy and an accident. Accidents happen. And I don’t think people are judged by whether or not they have accidents in their life, but more by how they deal with those accidents when they happen.”

“We immediately assembled our insurance companies and our attorneys. And we made it crystal clear that it was our objective to settle this case in record time. The Meridian Fire [the fire that took place at One Meridian Plaza in Center City Philadelphia in 1991], for example, took 12 years to settle. This case has settled in less than 14 months.”

“That would not have been possible without the cooperation of the plaintiffs’ attorneys and their desire to put their clients first and get them the money first and put the fight second. And also, without the judges and the mediators and without our insurance companies. You know insurance companies often get a bad rap, but I have to tell you that every insurance company on this team stepped up huge. From Erie [Insurance] on forward. And they also agreed that it was their job to pay this claim and settle it.”

“And so I’m here today to close the book on a tragedy that I hope will never happen again. And I’m grateful that no one was hurt, but I realize that families lost their priced possessions and were dispossessed from their homes. And we’re just very, very happy that they can be compensated.”

Please note that the amount of time taken to reach legal settlements for the fire at the One Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia is not certain. Please also note that there were 14 minor injuries at the Millennium Fire in Conshohocken according to Montgomery County Department of Public Safety.

The total legal settlement amounted to $36,250,000.00, according to a filing with the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County.

According to the Memorandum in Support of Motion for Final Approval of Settlement, Cavan Construction Company, whose workers were determined to have accidentally started the fire, paid $16 million of the $36.25 million settlement; Merion Construction, the general contractor, paid $11 million; Lynch 2 Inc., a construction management firm, paid $6 million; Washington Street Associates V, the owner of the site where the fire originated, paid $3 million; Bozzuto Construction paid $150,000.00; Bozzuto Management paid $50,000.00; and SimplexGrinnell paid $50,000.00.

Of the total settlement, $27,187,500.00 was awarded to Riverwalk Realty, Inc., the owners of the real estate of Riverwalk At Millennium. The owners had already begun the rebuilding process at the residential rental complex.

A Settlement Class Fund in the amount of $9,062,500.00 was created to pay for damages incurred by the tenants and others affected by the Millennium Fire. This amount represented approximately 73% of the estimated $12.4 million in damages sustained by the residents of the 188 apartment units that either were destroyed or damaged during the fire.

The settlement agreement anticipated that there may be others that were not tenants, but may have sustained damages due to the fire, including damages to automobiles parked in the area as well as other property damage that resulted from the fire.

Of the funds set aside for the Settlement Class Fund, the court awarded one-third – $3,020,531.25 – plus reimbursement of $149,305.26 in expenses to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County preliminarily approved the class action settlement on October 27, 2009. Final approval of the settlement took place on December 17, 2009.

Another view of the devastation at Riverwalk At Millennium.

The first photograph is courtesy of the members of Conshohocken Fire Company #2, August 13, 2008.

The second photograph is courtesy of Keystone Valley Fire Department, August 14, 2008.

Video provided by Mr. Edmund Campbell (that was produced on August 13, 2008).

The fourth photograph is courtesy of TrafficDan Miller, August 14, 2008.

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