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With his case nearing an August trial date, attorney Elliot Olsen reached a settlement favorable to his clients in a wrongful death lawsuit brought after three people died in an October 2010 Pennsylvania fire.
The sides agreed to a confidential settlement, which was reached while the defendants’ motions to dismiss were pending, an indication Elliot’s case was a strong one.
“We are very pleased to have achieved justice for the victims after almost eight years,” Elliot said.
Pennsylvania fire: the beginning
Elliot, representing the surviving family members, brought suit against three landlords after the fire in rural Bedford County, which has a population of about 50,000 and is located 115 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
The facts of the case:
- In October 2010, three people died in a fire at a two-unit residential property. The victims were Donna Day, Tara D. Vineyard, and Andre Ramirez. Day was a tenant in the back unit of the property; she lived there with Ramirez, her grandson. On the night of the fire, Vineyard was an overnight guest of Day.
- The owner of the property was Toby Holley, who purchased the multi-family structure in July 2010 from William and Kimberly Mearkle. The Mearkles had owned the property for about seven years. None of them had made extensive changes to the property, and they had performed only minor repairs to it.
- The cause of the fire was never determined.
- There were no smoke alarms on the property.
Pennsylvania fire: plaintiffs’ case
As they attempted to build their cases, Elliot and the defense attorneys brought in experts to investigate. “Everybody literally combed through the wreckage of this home after the fire marshal and law enforcement were done with it,” Elliot said.
Nonetheless, the cause could not be determined.
“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 brought in an expert who testified that the presence of smoke alarms would have prevented the deaths.
“Our expert (showed) 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.”
Pennsylvania fire: a setback
In 2015, the plaintiffs’ case was dismissed by the Bedford County Court in a two-part ruling:
- According to the court, the plaintiffs had no claim based on a common law assertion that the owners were negligent in failing to install smoke alarms. (Common law is that part of state law derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.)
- The court also ruled that 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 Elliot and his clients. It was, however, only temporary.
Pennsylvania fire: appeals
In late 2015, Elliot appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which subsequently ruled that he and the plaintiffs could proceed with their assertion that the owners had a responsibility to provide smoke alarms. Said Elliot: “The court basically said that there is a common law duty on the part of landlords to install smoke alarms.”
The defendants appealed the Superior Court decision to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, but in March 2017, the Supreme Court “denied review.” That decision returned the case 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. “This was a big step toward reaching a settlement favorable to my clients.”
Pennsylvania fire: victories
The decisions by the Superior and Supreme courts undeniably aided Elliot in his quest for a favorable settlement.
Equally as important, however, was that the decisions provide a touchstone for both residential renters and future fire victims in Pennsylvania.
“The onus is now on Pennsylvania landlords to ensure that their rental properties have the proper number of smoke alarms,” Elliot said.