PHA Not Liable for Wrongful Death
Facts: In March 2012, a resident and her four children died after a fire spread from the kitchen of their apartment. The estate of the deceased sued the local PHA for negligence and wrongful death. They claimed that the PHA failed to ensure that “properly working and accessible smoke alarm/detectors were properly installed in the decedent’s apartment unit.”
To support of its request for a judgment without a trial, the PHA argued that it fulfilled any relevant duty owed to the residents “by ensuring that a functional smoke detector or alarm was installed in the apartment” and that no further duty was owed. The PHA noted that the estate “concede[s] that the mother was awake and aware of the fire as she attempted to put it out” and that “whether the smoke alarm worked or failed to work is irrelevant since it is undisputed that the mother knew about the fire and attempted to extinguish it.” Further, the PHA argued that there’s no recorded evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that it “breached any duty owed to decedents that proximately caused their death by smoke inhalation.” “Proximate cause” is an event sufficiently related to an injury that the courts deem the event to be the cause of that injury.
In response, the estate argued that the PHA oversimplified the analysis of what duties were owed to the deceased. The estate contended that significant questions of fact exist as to whether the PHA breached those duties and whether that breach proximately caused the decedents’ injuries.
Ruling: An Arkansas district court granted the PHA’s request.
Reasoning: According to the lease, the PHA agreed “[t]o comply with requirements of applicable building code, and HUD regulations materially affecting health and safety.” HUD regulations required “that at least one working smoke detector be installed in the unit.” Also, under the lease, the resident agreed “[t]o provide reasonable care (including changing batteries) and perform interim testing of smoke detectors to ensure they are in working order.”
According to the evidence, the PHA installed one hard-wired working smoke detector. Further, the PHA inspected the smoke detector on Dec. 20, 2011, and Jan. 26, 2012, when completing work orders in the resident’s unit and confirmed the smoke detector was in working order.
With regard to the issue of proximate cause, the court ruled that the residents failed to come up with sufficient evidence of proximate causation from which reasonable jurors might conclude that it is more probable than not that the event was caused by the PHA.
- Singleton v. Ark. Hous. Prop. & Cas., March 2018