If You Own the Building, Do You Own the Fire?

Posted on Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 at 5:33 pm    

On April 9, 2012, a devastating fire tore through an abandoned warehouse. The firefighters had initially been called out for a simple rubbish fire but instead found a two-alarm fire that quickly escalated into to a five-alarm fire. The warehouse had numerous safety violations and burned quickly, causing walls to collapse and the building to disintegrate. One of those walls came down on five firemen, trapping them in the rubble. Three of the firemen were rescued, but two lost their lives.

Now, nearly two years after the devastating blaze, District Attorney Seth Williams has decided against filing criminal charges against the building owners. He states that no cause for the fire could be found, so there isnt enough evidence for an arrest. Both the firefighters union and the families of the deceased firefighters have requested the DA to reconsider his decision. So who’s at fault for the wrongful death of these two firefighters?

How Valid is a Civil Suit?

Meanwhile, the families of both firefighters have filed civil suits against the building owners. They claim that the owners had been aware of the dangerous conditions for years, and yet continued to neglect the building and its dangers. The owners also owed nearly half a million dollars in back taxes and unpaid water bills.

Property ownership and liability usually go together in a personal injury case especially when negligence can be proved. In this particular case, failure to maintain the building sufficiently to prevent the squatters and looters from creating the unsafe fire conditions will most likely be the issue, despite the fact that the DA didnt find the owners negligence grounds for criminal prosecution. But that is typical; a slip and fall usually doesnt end up with the arrest of the property owner even though the owners negligence will typically result in the victim winning a personal injury suit.

Proving Negligence

In the case of the abandoned property that burned in Philadelphia, the New York owners were over $400,000 behind in property taxes. Perhaps the DA didn’t pursue criminal negligence in order to eventually prosecute the owners for their back taxes. Regardless, negligence sufficient for a wrongful death suit should be easy to prove.

The New York owners, in numerous articles and reports, have been condemned for being slumlords. Whether or not this accusation holds any merit, it should be a warning to any landlords who fail to maintain their property properly, even after it has been abandoned. Liability cant be dismissed just because property is no longer occupied.

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