Twenty years after the MOVE bombing, the price tag for the debacle keeps rising, with a federal jury yesterday awarding the last 24 residents of the West Philadelphia block about $530,000 each and handing a stinging rebuke to Mayor Street.
Of total damages of $12.83 million, the jury awarded the homeowners $1.68 million for harm caused by Street’s “arbitrary” behavior for canceling repairs to the rebuilt houses on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue.
The award to each homeowner amounts to more than three times the $150,000 per house that Street wanted to pay residents in 2000 to move out of their homes permanently. When the suit was filed in 2000, the city had spent more than $16 million to build and repair the houses, and officials estimated that further repairs would cost an additional $13 million.
The lawsuit is a lingering conflict from the May 13, 1985, bombing, when city officials allowed an entire block of West Philadelphia to burn to the ground, killing 11 members of the radical group MOVE and displacing more than 60 homeowners.
Residents sued the city on grounds that Street broke the promises of his predecessors to repair their shoddy replacement homes. Mayor W. Wilson Goode rebuilt the block, but the new homes had structural problems.
It remains unclear what will happen to residents now.
A jury of five women and two men took harsh aim at Street, who testified at the trial. The jury found that the mayor acted with “malicious or reckless disregard” and levied punitive damages of $1.25 million.
Street testified he decided in his first months as mayor to raze the block instead of spending more money on repairs. He said he personally determined what the city would offer, arguing that it was significantly more than the selling prices for homes in the neighborhood.
After the verdict, Street said in a statement that the city’s offer to buy out homeowners was “an honest attempt to resolve this matter fairly after we determined we could not repair the houses to a livable level.”
He added, “In light of our efforts, we are deeply disappointed with the jury’s verdict today.”
About two-thirds of the residents took the offer, but the others said the city had a contractual obligation to fix the homes – not remove the homeowners with an offer of money. Many of the holdouts were elderly residents who did not want to be displaced again.
The new homes carried a 10-year warranty. In addition, in his final days in office, Mayor Ed Rendell said the city would honor its obligation to homeowners.
“Thank the Lord, our day of deliverance has come,” said Betty Mapp, one of the plaintiffs, after the verdict was announced. “It took 20 years, and now it’s over with the City of Philadelphia.”
She said the jury, which deliberated for a day and a half, was justified in its harsh treatment of Street. “He made the final decision, so he should have to take the final punishment,” Mapp said.
Gerald Renfrow, president of the Osage-Pine Community Association, called the verdict fair.
“We hope others will take notice: You can fight City Hall if you stand in unity,” Renfrow said.
He added, “We have no intention of moving.”
Gerald Wallerstein, a city attorney, had no comment on the verdict or whether the city would appeal.
Janet Whitters, a juror, said Street’s predecessors had made repeated promises to residents. After the block was destroyed, Goode pledged to rebuild the homes if residents refrained from suing the city.
“Goode made a commitment that the city would rebuild. Rendell continued it,” Whitters said. “Street came in and basically had amnesia.”
Of the $12.83 million award, the jury found the city liable for:
Conspiracy to harm, with compensatory damages of $960,000 and punitive damages of $300,000 against city officials, agencies and the mayor.
Breach of contract for a 1988 warranty on the homes, with damages of $3.6 million.
Breach of contract for the Rendell letter promising repairs, with damages for emotional distress of $2.4 million.
Arbitrary treatment by officials, with $720,000 in damages against the city and $1.68 million against Street.
Malicious or reckless disregard for the rights of homeowners, with $1.25 million in damages for the actions of Street specifically.
Denial of the economic use of residents’ homes, with damages of $1.92 million.
Street had declared the block a blighted area and the homes unsafe for residents.
In making a take-it-or-leave-it offer in 2000, Street told homeowners that the city would use its power of eminent domain to seize their property. The City Planning Commission, meanwhile, has the block slated for open space.
Adrian Moody, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he did not know what would happen next or whether the city would try to evict the residents.
Of the verdict, he said, “It gives closure to Osage Avenue.”
A History of MOVE and Osage Avenue
Early 1970s: Mantua handyman Vincent Leaphart attracts a following in Powelton Village, a group that becomes MOVE. Leaphart calls himself John Africa, and others adopt the last name.
Aug. 8, 1978: Police move against MOVE’s compound after the group fails to abide by terms of a previous deal ending a two-month blockade. A police officer is slain.
1982-85:John Africa and others move to 6221 Osage Ave. Neighbors complain of MOVE harassing them.
May 13, 1985: Police lay siege to the house with its bunker and gun port on the roof. The standoff lasts until a police helicopter drops a bomb on the house, causing a fire. Officials let it burn, figuring they can douse it after MOVE members flee. The inferno destroys the house and 61 others. The bodies of six adults, including John Africa, and five children are found in the rubble. Ramona Africa and 13-year-old Birdie Africa escape.
February 1986:Developer Ernest A. Edwards is removed from the Osage Avenue rebuilding project. He is later convicted of theft from the project.
March 7, 1986:A commission excoriates the city’s handling of the crisis.
April 15, 1986:Ramona Africa is convicted of riot and conspiracy and sentenced to 16 months to seven years in prison.
June 1990:The city settles claims filed by parents of the slain MOVE children for $2.5 million. The city had already spent more than $15 million to rebuild the neighborhood.
April 1991: The city agrees to pay $840,000 to Birdie Africa, now known as Michael Ward.
May 13, 1992: Ramona Africa reaches the end of her maximum sentence for her conviction on riot charges.
1996: A federal jury orders the city to pay $1.5 million to Ramona Africa and relatives of John and Frank Africa.
2000: After spending $16 million to build and repair homes, and facing a cost of $13 million more to make them livable, Mayor Street announces that all homes are being condemned. Residents would be given $125,000 for their homes and $25,000 in moving expenses. All but 24 families on Osage Avenue and Pine Street accept.
2003: The families who rejected the buyout offer sue in federal court for damages.
April: After U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer rejects the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, it goes to trial.
April 11: Jury awards $530,000 each to 24 homeowners.
Apr. 12, 2005
Jennifer Lin, Inquirer Staff Writer