RSA Tower – The Little Matter

Probably few people remember the great commotion which the City and Mayor Folmar raised around 1990 to entice the State to construct its proposed new Supreme Court Building on Dexter Avenue, the downtown side of the State Capitol, rather than behind it as the State master plan decreed.  A deal was finally cut, but it almost fell apart when the City was caught waiving parking requirements.  To solve the parking shortage, Emory Folmar agreed to secure and clear more ground nearby, on which the State could provide the necessary additional parking.  The additional property was in the block bounded by Dexter, Lawrence, McDonough and Monroe Streets, and the particular piece of it involved in the Little Matter was the old Peking Theater, which served the Black community, and which faced N. Lawrence Street.

As a part of its deal with the State, the City had issued a loosely drawn demolition contract to the Montala Demolition Company, a local black contractor.  Montala’s work included the demolition of the old theater, and his crew took it down bit-by-bit, with the intention to salvage and sell the old timbers and brick.  At one point in the process, everything was down but a free-standing brick wall which formerly constituted the rear wall of the theater.  A Montala employee named Frank Little was assigned to chink and stack up brick that he was able to recover from the pile of rubble.  On August 25, 1992, Frank was sitting on an upturned bucket, chinking away, when the nearby remnant of brick wall just toppled over on him.  That was the end of Frank Little.Peking Theater

Apparently, Frank was an unloved, disreputable alcoholic who had long since been cast out by his own family.  To them it was no great loss, and besides, Montala had no assets to attack.  However, unbeknownst to the Little family, the property had been swapped out in a deal with the RSA, and was soon to be involved in the RSA’s lower Monroe Street development.  The site of the accident was in the block we now call the “RSA Waterfall Park”.  Two months after the accident, the foundations of the RSA Tower were being poured directly across Monroe from the site of Frank Little’s demise.  Within six months, big bucks were being spent on all the surrounding blocks.

For every day the new construction was underway, the more beloved and extolled Frank Little became.  Finally, one year and 363 days after the accident and facing a two-year statute of limitations, the Little “heirs” could bear the loss no longer.  They found a black lawyer and had him file suite for $5 Million.  Because he was so close to the filing deadline, their frantic attorney, named Billy Carter, could only stride down Monroe Street and accuse in his suit every entity he could discern as possibly having anything to do with the vicinity of the accident.  Carter obviously copied the names from construction signs posted along Monroe and presented us with yet another vicarious role in a legal drama.

The Little suit named Montala, of course, and in addition, Russell Construction of Birmingham, who took over the demolition after Montala floundered; Parker Building Company of Opelika, who put in the Tower foundation; Goodwyn, Mills, & Cawood, who by the filing date had become architects of the waterfall park; and PH&J who had never even set foot on the block in which the accident occurred, but was architect for the Tower building directly across the street.  Carter would have named the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the ultimate deep pocket, but just before the action was filed, the RSA’s lawyer, Bill Stephens, told Billy Carter that the RSA was immune from such a claim (not totally the truth, but Billy believed it).

By 1994, the year the Little action was filed, PH&J had changed professional liability insurance carriers again.  Now we were so insured by DPIC (Design Professionals Insurance Company) and, in view of the mammoth work we were doing for the RSA, we had upped over coverage limit to $2 Million.  This was important because in the Little suit, we pretty much had to depend solely on our professional liability coverage.  Because this accident did not even occur on a PH&J job site, none of the coverage  we normally have through the contractor was available.

It was on this occasion that I met, through correspondence and telephone conferences, one Peter Marshall, DPIC’s Atlanta based claims manager for the Southern Region.  He and I were to face so many claims and potential claims over the next five years that we almost felt like friends.   These days I call up and greet him, “Peter Marshal…”, and even before I have identified myself, he replies, “Charles, what have you gotten into now?”

-Charles Humphries (“Peril and Intrigue Within Architecture”)

This is one of many RSA Tower stories. The rest can be found here.

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