BRIDGETON — The owner of a building damaged in the collapse of Millville’s Levoy Theatre has sued the theater and its general contractor, saying their negligence “severely damaged” the structure, keeping it from being occupied and preventing the owners from receiving rents.
In the suit, the Fath Department Store Inc.’s owner said the High Street building was badly damaged when the theater partially collapsed amid renovations on Jan. 3, 2011, and that subsequent construction has worsened problems.
On Tuesday, Millville cited the Fath building as an “eminent hazard” and ordered that it be repaired immediately. The northeast corner of the building, which is the corner adjacent to the Levoy and the sidewalk, had separated by more than an inch, the inspection notice said.
Municipal barricades blocked the sidewalk and part of the road in front of the building Wednesday.
Steven E. Angstreich, the Cherry Hill attorney representing the Fath building, said he anticipated the city would hire an engineer to do the work and bill the Fath, which will in turn send the bill to its insurance carrier, the Levoy and Ogren Construction, the Levoy’s general contractor.
“The condition that exists is a condition that was caused by the collapse of the Levoy and the impact that it caused to the building,” Angstreich said. “It weakened the structure.”
The six-count suit filed April 24 in Cumberland County Superior Court in Bridgeton said plans for the renovation of the century-old theater did not ensure structural stability of the theater. The plans also did not ensure the Fath building would not be damaged.
Regardless, the lawsuit alleges, the work undertaken did not follow the plans and was done without proper engineering, soil or topographical studies.
While the renovations were ongoing, the work was done inappropriately, the lawsuit alleges, with the wrong equipment used and the building excavated beneath the foundation without being properly braced or supported.
Phil Van Embden, one of the members of the Levoy Theatre Preservation Society board, said the suit “was expected as a natural consequence to the events of January 2011.” He said both the theater and its neighbor were well-insured and the issues would be resolved.
“The Fath building is an important part of the downtown and it will be nice to see it put back in service,” Van Embden said.
Arthur J. Ogren, principal of the company, said his company has taken steps to compel the Fath’s owners to repair their building, since it now “jeopardized” the largely complete Levoy.
Ogren criticized the Van Hook family that owns the Fath, saying “They’re looking for the home run, basically, the big cash settlement.” Ogren said the owners overstated the problems, which he estimated could be fixed for $50,000.
“They’re not repairing the building, and we can’t understand why,” Ogren said.
Angstreich said the Fath and its owners have lost out on about $165,000 in rent as a result of the damage.
The collapse also critically damaged the Vintage Rose Tea Room building to the north of it. The Tea Room building was subsequently demolished, as was the building to the north of it.
In June, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Ogren with two serious violations that carried $9,800 in fines, saying there was excavation beneath the level of the foundation, and the building’s north wall was not properly supported and the surrounding soils shored.
The violations were subsequently downgraded to “other than serious” in December and the fines reduced to $1,000.
The Levoy’s partial collapse damaged the Fath building to the south of it, suddenly evicting the tax-preparation business and others on the ground floor, as well as the tenants in the apartments above.
In January, seven tenants of the Fath building, evicted because the collapse, filed suit. Their cases have not yet resolved.
That month, Fath sued its insurance company, Travelers Property Casualty Company of America, in a several-hundred-thousand-dollar dispute over claims. That case is also unresolved, with a routine telephone conference planned for June.
The Levoy Theatre has said it plans to open to the public and hold its initial performances this summer.
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