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August 18, 2008 5:31 PM

In Shadow of Ground Zero, Deutsche Bank Building Litigation Heats Up

Posted by Brian Baxter

Nearly a year to the day after a seven-alarm fire at the abandoned Deutsche Bank Building in downtown Manhattan took the lives of New York City firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, civil and criminal litigation stemming from the tragedy continues to proceed.

Beddia and Graffagnino died on August 18, 2007 from smoke inhalation when they and roughly 100 other firefighters were stranded in the asbestos-laden, 41-story relic. The tragedy occurred as a result of a blaze started by a construction worker's cigarette and a disconnected standpipe which prevented water from rising to fight the blaze.

The New York Times reported on Monday that Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau is mulling the extremely rare step of bringing criminal charges against fellow city agencies for their alleged failure to perform adequate inspections on the skyscraper.

The city and the owner of the Deutsche Bank property--a state agency called the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC)--have turned to some high-profile lawyers to protect themselves from any potential civil or criminal liabilities.

Veteran litigator Gary Naftalis, a name partner of New York's Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, is representing the city in all inquiries related to the Deutsche Bank Building disaster. (The Times quotes New York City corporation counsel Michael Cardozo as saying Kramer Levin has been paid $3.1 million from city coffers for its role in the ongoing investigations by Morgenthau's office and state officials.)

The LMDC has tapped Dechert litigation partner Andrew Levander to represent its interests in any criminal investigation and reportedly has paid the firm a $1 million retainer. Money well spent, we say, based on Levander's experience. The American Lawyer profiled the Dechert partner in February 2005 for navigating a minefield of criminal and civil investigations on behalf of Symbol Technologies. (Naftalis declined to comment and Levander did not return a call seeking comment.)

According to the Times, Morgenthau's criminal investigation also is targeting several other entities, such as London-based construction management firm Bovis Lend Lease--owner of the LMDC's $170 million deconstruction contract--and demolition subcontractor John Galt Corporation.

But so far, neither of those entities has avoided being named in civil filings.

In February, Beddia's family--along with their lawyers at Crowell & Moring and Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson--announced a civil suit in state court against the LMDC, Bovis, and John Galt for inadequate oversight of the demolition process. (Neither Peter Driscoll, a name partner at New York's Driscoll & Redlich representing John Galt, nor Crowell counsel Aryeh Portnoy, a lawyer for Beddia's family, responded to requests for comment.)

The dismantling of the Deutsche Bank Building, which has been plagued by deconstruction delays, insurance problems, cost overruns, and oversights, is scheduled to be completed sometime next summer.

Additional reporting by Ben Hallman.

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