PHA Not Liable for Deaths Caused by Lack of Smoke Alarm and Second Egress
Facts: In 2010, a fire in a unit took the lives of a Section 8 resident and her guest. Their bodies were found on the third floor of the unit, and an autopsy confirmed that both women died from smoke inhalation. The third-floor bedroom lacked a smoke detector and an alternate means of egress—even though the unit was required to have both safety features under the Housing Choice Voucher program in which the owner participated.
The local PHA provides housing vouchers to qualified families who may take the voucher to a willing landlord of their choosing, subject to the PHA’s approval of the tenancy. Approval requires an inspection and a determination that the unit meets HUD’s Housing Quality Standards (HQS). Among other things, HQS require that the unit have “an alternate means of exit in case of fire (such as fire stairs or egress through windows),” and “at least one battery-operated or hard-wired smoke detector, in proper operating condition, on each level.”
According to the contract between the owner and the PHA, the owner must keep the unit in compliance with HQS for the duration of the lease. The PHA employs housing inspectors to inspect units prior to leasing, annually thereafter, and “at other times as needed” to ensure compliance.
In March 2006, an inspector performed the initial inspection required to approve the unit for the program. He failed the unit at that time, informing the owner to: (1) install a smoke detector; (2) secure the railing; and (3) install a fire escape ladder for a second means of egress. In April 2006, the inspector purportedly allowed the unit to pass even though it lacked a third-floor fire escape ladder. The inspector then allowed the unit to pass annual inspections in 2007, 2009, and 2010.
The results of the 2008 annual inspection are unknown, but in April 2008, the PHA’s Section 8 program coordinator sent a letter to the owner stating that the PHA would terminate all housing assistance payments and the Section 8 contract effective May 31, 2008, due to the unit not being brought up to HQS. The coordinator sent similar letters to the owner after the 2009 and 2010 inspections. Despite these warning letters and the owner’s continued failure to comply with the HQS, the PHA didn’t terminate the housing assistance payments for the unit.
After the fire, the estates of the deceased sued the PHA under a state-created danger claim. A Pennsylvania district court found that without the PHA’s actions in approving and subsidizing the unit, the Section 8 resident wouldn’t have been living in that unit, and she and her guest wouldn’t have been killed in the fire. The court stated that their deaths were a foreseeable result of the PHA’s acts and that a jury could find the PHA’s behavior was deliberately indifferent and conscience-shocking. The PHA appealed.
Ruling: The Third Circuit Appeals Court reversed the lower court’s decision.
Reasoning: The estates for the deceased couldn’t show that the resident died as a direct result of the state officials’ actions. In other words, the PHA’s approval and subsidization of the unit didn’t lead “fairly directly” to the fire. Although the cause of the fire isn’t known, the court pointed out that the estates didn’t claim that the PHA caused the fire or increased the unit’s susceptibility to fire. Nor did they contend that the PHA failed to install a smoke detector and a fire escape on the third floor of the unit. The complaint made clear it was the owner’s responsibility, and not the PHA’s, to install a smoke detector and fire escape.
Also, the resident remained in the unit and received rent subsidies despite having actual notice that the unit failed to meet HQS. The court stated that the resident had substantial time to reflect on the living situation before the fire took place.
- Henry v. The Housing Authority of the City of Erie, August 2013