When a litigation attorney succeeds in attaining a monetary settlement for a client, it’s an obvious victory for both parties. There are, however, other types of legal victories, some not so obvious.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania provided attorney Elliot Olsen with that type of victory in 2017. By simply refusing to review an appeal by Olsen’s opponents in a civil lawsuit, the Supreme Court ensured that Pennsylvania’s residential renters will be safer for decades to come.

An early-morning fire, and 3 people are dead 

Elliot, representing surviving family members, brought suit against three landlords after a fire in rural Bedford County caused the deaths of three people. The facts of the case:

  • In October 2010, a fire at a two-unit residential property killed three people: Donna Day, Tara D. Vineyard, and Andre Ramirez. Ms. Day was a tenant in the back unit of the property and lived there with her grandson, Andre.  The night of the fire, Ms. Vineyard was visiting Ms. Day and was an overnight guest.
  • The property was owned by Toby Holley, who purchased the multi-family structure in July 2010 from William and Kimberly Mearkle, who had owned it since 2003. None of the owners made extensive changes to the property, performing only minor repairs.
  • The cause of the fire was not determined.
  • There were no smoke alarms on the premises.

The case for the plaintiffs

Elliot began building his case by bringing in experts to investigate the fire’s aftermath. Attorneys for the defense did the same.

“Everybody literally combed through the wreckage of this home after the fire marshal and law enforcement were done with it,” Elliot said.

No one was able to determine what caused the fire.

“We could tell the fire started in a back-porch area, a three-season porch, where they had a refrigerator and washer/dryer,” Elliot said. “But we weren’t able to tie the fire to anything specific, like faulty wiring or a faulty appliance. So the only theory that we could proceed on was the negligent failure to install smoke alarms.”

Elliot retained an expert to testify that the installation of smoke alarms would have prevented the deaths.

“Our expert can show that the levels of carbon monoxide in the decedents’ blood were high, meaning that they were alive for a while, breathing in smoke,” Elliot said. “All three people were out of bed when they died. If smoke alarms had been installed, they would have been awakened earlier and could have escaped the building safely.”

A temporary setback

In 2015, however, the plaintiffs’ case was dismissed by the Bedford County Court in a two-part ruling:

  1. The court stated that the plaintiffs had no claim based on a common law assertion that the owners were negligent in failing to install smoke alarms. (Common law being the part of state law that is derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.)
  2. The two-year statute of limitations had passed in regard to a filing of negligence per se on the part of the owners. (Negligence per se is a doctrine within U.S. law under which an act is considered negligent because it violates a statute or regulation.)

It was a setback for the plaintiffs.

One appeal, and then another 

Later in 2015, Elliot appealed to the state’s intermediate appellate court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which ruled that the plaintiffs could indeed proceed with their assertion that the owners had a responsibility to provide smoke alarms.

“The court basically said that there is a common law duty on the part of landlords to install smoke alarms,” Elliot said.

Not surprisingly, the defendants appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In March 2017, however, the Supreme Court “denied review,” returning the case back to trial court for further proceedings.

“It was a big win because there were three deaths in a fire, and the case had been dismissed, so we’d lost at the trial-court level,” Elliot said.

A decision with consequences

The decisions by the Superior and Supreme courts will surely help Elliot’s case. A trial date was set for 2018, which could provide the impetus for a settlement. Furthermore – and just as important – the decisions provide a touchstone for both residential renters and future fire victims in Pennsylvania.

“We do not yet have final victory,” Elliot said.  “But it is rewarding to know that the onus is now on Pennsylvania landlords to ensure that their rental properties have the proper number of smoke alarms.”

Postscript: Finally, a settlement

With the case nearing an August 2018 trial date, a settlement finally was reached. Both sides agreed that the settlement would be confidential, and so the compensation amount cannot be revealed.

In addition, the case settled while the defendants’ motions to dismiss were pending, an indication that Elliot’s case was a strong one.

The proceeds will be allocated among the surviving relatives, providing a small amount of solace.

Said Elliot, “We are very pleased to have achieved justice for the victims after almost eight years.”