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Landlord Legal Liability in House Fire Weighed in Injury Lawsuit

House fires have the potential to cause serious threats to our personal safety and welfare. The National Fire Protection Association estimates home fires kill 2,500 annually (accounting for 93 percent of all civilian structure fire deaths), which breaks down to an average of seven daily. They also injure some 12,300 people each year and cause more than $6.7 billion in direct damage. 

The question of who is legally responsible for a fire can be a complex one, even when there is no evidence someone intentionally set the fire (in which case criminal arson charges may be applicable). More often than not, the cause is accidental, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t preventable or that someone shouldn’t be held liable. The NFPA reports cooking equipment is the No. 1 cause of home structure fires and injuries, followed by smoking and heating equipment.

But for those who live in rental properties, it’s important to consider the actions or omissions of the landlord. While such actions may not have caused the fire, they may have created circumstances that made the structure vulnerable to fire or exacerbated the risk of injury or death. Examples might include absent or broken smoke detectors, blocked fire exits, missing safety equipment and maintenance failures. 

In general, tenants seeking to recover damages will need to show that the fire resulted or its effects exacerbated by the landlord’s negligence. As our West Palm Beach injury attorneys know, these are often premises liability claims, which means showing the landlord knew or should have known there was a dangerous condition that gave rise to the fire. It could alternatively mean asserting some breach of contract or failure to warn. The exact claim will depend on the circumstances of the case.

Although such claims have been successful, they are often difficult, as a recent case before the California Court of Appeals Fifth Appellate District revealed. In that fire injury case, according to court records, a fire in an upstairs apartment resulted in injuries to four tenants, each of whom sued their landlord for negligence. The source of the fire was a gas wall heater in an upstairs apartment. However, it was uncertain what exactly caused the fire to ignite. One theory was that the heater simply malfunctioned. Another was that plaintiffs put some type of combustible material (i.e., blankets, pillows, etc.) too close to the heater.

Following discovery, defendant landlord filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing plaintiffs couldn’t establish causation, and to back his assertion, offered the opinions of two fire investigators. Plaintiffs in responding to that motion did not provide any expert evidence. Trial court decided defendant met his initial burden in asserting plaintiffs couldn’t prove causation, which meant the burden of proof for the summary judgment motion shifted to plaintiffs and they had not responded with adequate evidence that they could prevail. The appellate court affirmed – despite plaintiffs’ allegations of spoliation of evidence (i.e., disposing of the heater in question). The appellate court ruled that in order to meet the “causation” prong of their negligence claim, they needed to show the a substantial link or nexus between the defendant’s act or omission being a substantial factor in causing plaintiffs’ harm. The court ruled they failed to do that.

Although this outcome was disappointing for the plaintiffs, it’s a good lesson in why fire injury cases need to be meticulously investigated by a seasoned injury attorney before they are pursued. Our legal team can help you weigh the merits of your case and will aggressively pursue viable claims for damages, fighting for you to receive the maximum compensation allowable.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Leyva v. Garcia, Feb. 27, 2018, California Court of Appeal Fifth Appellate District

More Blog Entries:

Florida School Shooting Victims Mull Lawsuit Against Authorities, March 5, 2018, West Palm Beach Personal Injury Attorney Blog

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