Fire Department May Be Liable for Household Members’ Deaths
The administrator of an estate of four family members who died in an apartment fire sued the local PHA and the fire department for negligence. The apartment had only a single point of ingress and egress, namely, a second-floor door that opened onto a porch and an external staircase. Because the building lacked fire escapes, the only means of leaving the apartment was through that door. This meant that an individual seeking to escape from the bedrooms on the third floor of the apartment during an emergency had to travel down the internal staircase into the kitchen area, and then traverse the second-floor dining/living room area to access the door. Because of frequent false alarms caused by cooking fumes, some residents of the site were in the habit of covering or disabling their smoke detectors.
According to state law, the local fire marshal’s office is required to conduct annual inspections of all multifamily residential units the city. It is undisputed that the fire department conducted the mandatory inspection of the apartment in the year prior to the fire. Just one day before the fire, however, two employees of the PHA did conduct a routine maintenance inspection of the apartment. The lead inspector stated that he is certified by HUD to replace smoke detector batteries and carry out health and safety inspections of multiunit residential facilities. In the course of inspecting the apartment, he and his assistant tested the smoke detectors, replaced one nonfunctioning detector, and changed the battery in another. He reported that all of the smoke detectors in the apartment were functioning properly upon completion of his inspection.
Both the fire department and the state police investigated the circumstances surrounding the fire. With respect to the cause of the fire, both agencies concluded that it was accidental. Investigators concluded that the conflagration arose from a fire on the stove with human involvement. Fire department investigators specifically linked the fire to “carelessness,” guessing that the head of household’s blood alcohol content would probably have impaired her ability to respond appropriately to the initial alarm and to the fire. Investigators also concluded that the five ionization-type smoke detectors within the apartment were operational at the time of the fire.
The defendants asked the trial court for a judgment without a trial in their favor, claiming, with respect to their duty to annually inspect the apartment, that they had no actual notice of any defects or violations at the apartment, so the two exceptions to municipal immunity under state law—actual notice and reckless disregard for health or safety—did not apply. The trial court granted their request. The estate appealed, and the appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered the trial to continue. The estate appealed the issue to the state’s supreme court.
Ruling: The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision.
Reasoning: In his deposition, the fire department chief conceded that the fire department was required by state law to conduct annual inspections of the apartment, but that it did not conduct the inspections due to a claimed lack of resources. The court concluded that a jury, considering all the relevant circumstances, reasonably could find that the defendants’ persistent failure to inspect the decedents’ apartment and thousands of other multifamily units in the city in violation of their statutory duty could be considered an example of a pattern of reckless disregard for public health or safety and created a foreseeable and substantial risk that some tragedy of this general sort would occur, and, accordingly, the defendants weren’t entitled to a judgment without a trial on that issue.
The chief had made numerous statements in his deposition that arguably created questions of fact as to whether the fire department demonstrated a reckless disregard for health or safety, including his statements that he was familiar with all relevant legal and regulatory requirements but wasn’t aware either that the fire department was obligated to annually inspect the city’s public housing complexes or that the fire safety code mandated certain smoke detectors, and that the fire department lacked the resources to carry out mandated inspections but that he didn’t request any additional inspectors until four years after the fire that killed the household.
- Williams v. Hous. Auth. of Bridgeport, December 2017