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Insurance issues raised by Harrisburg wall collapse

Howard Henry stands amid stacks of tires in the waiting area of his Harrisburg business, Howard Tire and Auto, seven months after a retaining wall on a neighboring property came crashing down into his Cameron Street tire warehouse. - (Photo / Roger DuPuis)

It wasn’t Howard Henry’s fault. He didn’t cause the retaining wall of a neighboring property to come crashing down onto his Cameron Street business, Howard Tire and Auto, last May.

He didn’t do anything to create confusion about who is responsible for that century-old wall, a battle still being fought as three different entities deny ownership.

He isn’t the reason the debris remains undisturbed while other people fight about who will clean it and who will pay, while his business remains closed.

But Henry has inadvertently learned some tough lessons about insurance coverage in the wake of the mess.

Henry recently said the damage to his own building alone is nearing $3 million, and says that his insurance covers only about half that amount, which was about what Henry said he was able to afford.

Even with more insurance, it’s unlikely Henry would be in a position to clean up the remaining debris and stabilize the property above his, a project he said he’s heard could cost between $10 million and $21 million — dependent, of course, on someone claiming responsibility for the wall and what happened to it.

Still, an insurance industry expert said one of the tragedies of situations such as Henry’s stems from business owners who do not have adequate insurance — or the right types of coverage — when disaster strikes.

“A lot of times, people take chances, as humans tend to do,” said Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the New York City-based Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit founded to increase public understanding of how insurance works.

“They think, ‘It isn’t going to happen to me,’” she said.

Amy Spangler

It’s important not just to have adequate coverage, Worters said, but to know what a policy covers — for example, is it an “all perils” policy?

An “all perils” policy is broad, but it can have limitations, Worters pointed out. Earthquakes and floods, for example, are disasters that may require separate coverage.

Business interruption insurance is another type of coverage that is important to have, Worters added. It can help keep some income flowing as owners recover from catastrophe.

Henry said he does have business interruption coverage, but as with his other policies, delays in reimbursement have complicated a difficult situation.

In addition, Henry said the overarching problem is whether and how to relocate a 56,000-square foot business while he waits to see whether the looming danger above his property gets cleaned up and stabilized.

Complex story

What’s happening to Howard Tire is the result of a complicated history.

The initial wall collapse took place on May 5, following days of rain. No injuries were reported, and PennDOT confirmed in the following days that the adjacent Mulberry Street Bridge remained safe.

At issue since has been whether the adjacent retaining wall was part of the bridge.

The bridge was built by the city 107 years ago, but has been owned by the state since around 1939, Art Emerick, the city’s assistant codes director, has said.

PennDOT has said the wall was not connected to the bridge, and that the agency does not own the wall, which runs at a right angle to the span.

The property above Henry’s, and behind the wall, is occupied by the McFarland Apartments, a former industrial complex that was converted to residential use.

Backfill was placed behind the wall in the 1990s to build up a parking lot, which partially collapsed in May along with the wall.

During an October hearing, Emerick said the city “can’t find anything definitive” in its search for evidence of plans or permits from the time of the ’90s backfill.

The McFarland is owned by Isaac Dohany, a New Jersey resident. His legal team, including New York attorney Adam Klein, has maintained that the wall is not part of the McFarland property, and that Dohany’s actions didn’t contribute to the collapse.

In court documents filed on behalf of his client, Klein alleges that bridge repair work done in 2015 by PennDOT caused the collapse. That project involved pouring thousands of gallons of water onto the bridge to cure new concrete.

PennDOT has previously said its own investigation found no evidence that its work contributed to the collapse.

Dohany, meanwhile, is fighting a city condemnation order and codes violations against the property, which prolongs the process of moving ahead with any cleanup, which Klein argues is not his client’s responsibility. A court hearing on the code violations, which was due to take place in December, has been continued until February.

Klein did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

He was quoted in a story as saying that his client lacks money for the cleanup, and that the hearing postponement was requested while they seek confirmation of insurance coverage.

Uncertain future

Samuel R. Marshall, president and CEO of The Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, suggested that one of the overriding concerns for the community as a whole should be getting the property cleaned up, especially if it is affecting a local business.

“The last thing Harrisburg needs is for another business to go under,” he said.

Marshall notes that condemnation is the usual leverage used by municipalities in cases where ownership cannot be established or is in doubt, a process frequently used in cases where abandoned properties pose imminent hazards to neighbors.

In this case, the city has issued condemnation notices against three properties: an eight-unit apartment building at 200 Crescent St., owned by McFarland LP; 127 Mulberry St., a vacant storage building; and 205 S. Cameron St., the tire-storage facility for Howard Tire and Auto. McFarland is fighting the condemnation on the basis that an engineer’s report found there was no imminent danger of the apartment building collapsing. Thus, Dohany did not want to “risk making things worse,” which also might affect his insurance coverage, Klein said in October.

Henry, meanwhile, said a report from a private adjustor informed him in October that his building would not be safe for occupancy until the debris was removed and the wall stabilized. That’s when he finally closed down.

Marshall said that in most cases, ownership can be traced through the time-honored title-search process.

“I’ve heard of any number of complicated scenarios,” he said. “That’s when you go to the recorder of deeds and do a title search.”

“Someone owns that property,” Marshall said of the wall.

Henry, meanwhile, is dealing with the disposition of a different type of property: unused inventory. In the lobby where customers used to wait for their vehicle repairs to be finished, stacks of new tires now sit.

“I’m having to downsize my inventory,” Henry said, adding that he has been talking to suppliers about buying some of it back, rather than offering him credits, since Henry doesn’t know where or when he will reopen.

A devoted Christian, he is taking the tribulations in stride. Henry is part of a ministry called Heart Wrenched, which works with community agencies to help provide services for disadvantaged people who need tires or car repairs, and he plans to stay involved with that effort.

“I’m not drowning,” Henry said. “It’s difficult, but I know God is on my side.”

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at [email protected].

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