Attorney for Justice family says they complained of problems before deadly house collapse in Hamilton
The site deadly house collapse in Hamilton has been locked behind fence installed by the township.Isaac Avilucea — The Trentonian
By Isaac Avilucea, The Trentonian
POSTED: 08/01/18, 4:17 PM EDT | UPDATED: 2 HRS AGO
A makeshift memorial has been set up at the site of a deadly house collapse in Hamilton.Isaac Avilucea — The Trentonian
HAMILTON >> A township home that collapsed last week, killing 38-year-old Tika Justice and injuring her two daughters, underwent repairs when part of the ceiling collapsed in one of the bedrooms some time before the house caved in on itself, the family’s attorneys said.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the July 23 collapse, attorney Robin Lord said she was still working to determine the extent of the damage that occurred months before the collapse, but added it was extensive enough to require landlord William “Bill” Pozniak to take steps to fix the ceiling.
Lord said the Justice family “repeatedly complained” to Pozniak about conditions in the home.
“They put them into a house that they had no business being in,” she said. “Houses don’t collapse like that. Every time it rained, there was water in the basement.”
The new information suggesting the home may have been in disrepair before it pancaked on itself came to light at the same time Azirea Miller, Justice’s 20-year-old daughter, spelled in court papers filed on her behalf her intent to hold Pozniak, who rented the three-story home to the Justice family, at least partially responsible for the collapse.
Pozniak hung up the phone, and didn’t respond to a follow-up call, when he was reached for comment.
The township-hired engineering firm concluded long-term water damage caused the unforeseen tragedy, but Lord said that opinion was based on an incomplete examination of the damage of the 1804 South Broad Street home.
Ewing-based engineering firm Leonard Busch issued a report a day after the collapse saying it found no apparent evidence of structural distress following a physical inspection that included examining the concrete block masonry from the collapsed house and reviewing pre-collapse Google Earth images. The firm noted engineers smelled the “distinctive odor of mold indicating the basement was chronically moist or wet.
Lord said the firm’s inspection was the “functional equivalent of going to the doctor and saying, ‘Doc, this person is complaining [of an illness]’ and then concluding it’s appendicitis without doing X-rays, CAT scans, to look underneath. They didn’t go in the basement.”
The “pre-action discovery” pleadings, filed jointly by Lord and attorney Clifford Bidlingmaier late Tuesday, stated they’re concerned over a potential cover-up of the deadly collapse since the township has refused the family’s engineering expert access to the collapse site to conduct an investigation of the cause and obtain debris samples for testing.
Mayor Kelly Yaede didn’t immediately respond to a phone call requesting comment. A representative from her office confirmed the township received the pleadings but stressed it doesn’t own the property the experts wants to inspect.
Lord contends the family expert needs township approval to get into the collapse site since the township has the key to a fence installed around it.
Township attorney Lindsay Burbage denied suggestions that township officials are intentionally or discriminatorily preventing anyone from accessing the collapse site, saying they can’t grant permission for the family’s expert to step foot on private property. That must come from the owner.
“We have no control of it,” he said. “We don’t have anything to do with this.”
The court papers state time is paramount since failing to preserve the collapse site could cause “spoliation” and destruction of “vital evidence.”
To prevent that from happening, they’ve asked Superior Court Judge Douglas Hurd to issue an emergency court order that would allow the expert onto the collapse site and would further require officials and the owner to ensure it remains in its “current state,” according to the records.
The court papers hint that whatever information the family’s expert gathers will be used as part of a future negligence lawsuit “against certain individuals which includes, but is not limited to, William Pozniak. The action will involve, but is not limited to, issues concerning the reckless and/or negligent inspection and/or maintenance of the property.”
Pozniak, of Allentown, owns several properties in Trenton and Hamilton, including a photography studio at 1806 South Broad Street, next door to where the deadly collapse occurred.
He agreed to rent the property to Justice, and township officials said the family was allowed to live in the South Broad Street rental once it passed inspection Sept. 26, 2013.
Court records obtained by The Trentonian showed the family had a lease in place with Pozniak and was “in possession” of the home Sept. 15, before township officials issued a certificate of occupancy.
Pozniak was in the process of evicting the family from the home at the time of the collapse because Justice was late paying the rent, a recurrent problem for the single mother of two who lost her husband years ago.
He took Justice to court more than two dozen times for landlord-tenant issues over the years, online records showed. And records reflected tenant warrants were issued in some instances.
The tenant warrants explicitly state it is illegal, and considered a disorderly persons offense, for landlords involved in eviction proceedings to “padlock of otherwise block entry to a rental premises while a tenant who lives there is still in legal possession” of the homes.
But Lord suggested Pozniak did so on at least one occasion when he changed the locks on the family, forcing them onto the streets, because they were $200 short of the $1,455 monthly rent.
The family was allowed back in only after they were paid up in full, Lord said.
“Tika was a single mother, putting one of her daughters through college,” Lord said. “When she was a couple hundred dollars short on rent, he would immediately file eviction proceedings the day after rent was due instead of giving her an opportunity to come up with the money. That’s disgraceful.”
Justice’s 16-year-old daughter, once hospitalized in serious but stable condition, is undergoing rehab for the injuries she suffered in the collapse.
Church leaders and community member have helped the daughters, collecting clothing, furniture and other items, and raising thousands of dollars to help them recover from the tragedy. The family’s lawyers have taken the case on a contingency basis.
Pastor Joseph Woods of Saint Phillips Baptist Church in the township hopes to raise $10,000 to cover funeral expenses for Justice.
Her memorial service has been tentatively set for Saturday.