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Couple sues after Kilbuck landslide damages their unfinished home

| Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, 11:09 a.m.
A landslide damaged a home under construction in Kilbuck Township, spurring a lawsuit against four contractors hired to build the home.
A landslide damaged a home under construction in Kilbuck Township, spurring a lawsuit against four contractors hired to build the home.

Laura Hartzell said family members and friends thought she and her husband were joking when they described the landslide that wiped out part of their new home in Kilbuck less than two days after they bought it.

After all, it was April 1, and her husband, Russell, is a jokester, Hartzell said.

"We were like, 'This is not a joking matter,' " she said. "It was the absolute worst experience of both of our lives."

The Ohio Township couple is suing four companies involved in the home's construction, claiming the companies should have known that building at the foot of a hillside would be a risk and that contractors did not obtain a grading permit before starting construction, according to a complaint filed last week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

The Hartzells closed on the unfinished house at 411 Old Camp Horne Road in late March with the understanding that it would take about a month to complete construction, Laura Hartzell said, noting that she and her husband wanted to move into a larger home because they had just started looking to adopt a child.

It rained nearly all day March 30 and continued into the next day. When the Hartzells walked into the home April 1, they discovered that the hillside behind the house had slid overnight.

The landslide hit the house and buckled a first-story and basement wall, according to the complaint. Soil flowed into the basement and pushed the first-floor wall into the fireplace and caused cracks to form in floors throughout the house, the complaint said.

"If my husband or I were in that basement, it would have killed us," Hartzell said. "It would have crushed us."

The defendants include S.M. Ross, based in Pittsburgh; Schneider Excavation, based in McDonald; Building Inspection Underwriters, based in Feasterville-Travose; and Lion Enterprises, based in Harrisburg.

S.M. Ross declined to comment. The other three contractors could not be reached.

"That house should have never been built," Laura Hartzell said. "It needs to be torn down. It's a complete loss."

The couple is looking to recoup the cost of the home — nearly $280,000, including closing costs — as well as more than $13,000 worth of items purchased for the home.

"We'll never move into that house," Hartzell said. "We just want it to be like this never happened."

The slide-damaged home is close to the Kilbuck site where an enormous landslide dumped more than 500,000 cubic yards of dirt, rocks and trees onto busy Route 65 and adjacent Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on Sept. 19, 2006, requiring more than $50 million in repairs and work to stabilize the hillside. Wal-Mart had been building a Supercenter store on the site of the former Dixmont State Hospital when the slide happened.

Megan Guza and Theresa Clift are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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