$750,000 verdict against landlord after tenant dies in house fire

by John Chapman

57-year-old James Mitchell was killed when a fire trapped him inside a burning boarding house in Columbus Junction, Iowa. A Louisa County, Iowa jury has now awarded $750,000 in damages to Mitchell’s family.

The boarding house was a dormitory-type building with nine ground-floor sleeping rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom the tenants shared. The Iowa Fire Marshal’s office ruled the fire accidental, caused when food cooking on a stove was left unattended. The kitchen was in the front of the building and the sleeping rooms were in the rear. According to investigators, Mitchell would have had to go through the area where the fire started in order to escape.

A lawsuit filed against the owners of the boarding houses on behalf of Mitchell’s estate alleged that the owners were negligent because they:

  • Failed to provide appropriate entrance and exit points;
  • Purposely blocked or locked alternate exits;
  • Failed to provide appropriate and necessary fire detectors;
  • Failed to provide a fire exit plan to tenants; and
  • Did not provide windows in the sleeping rooms.

The owners of the building did not testify or present any witnesses at trial. Instead, they admitted in court documents they were negligent by failing to provide two exits for the safety of the residents of the boarding house, by failing to install and maintain working windows in each sleeping room and by failing to install smoke detectors in each sleeping room.

Because of the owner’s admissions, the trial was largely a matter of determining the amount of damages. The jury awarded Mitchell’s estate $500,000 in actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. One of the key issues for the jury was the amount of “pre-death mental anguish, pain and suffering” that Mitchell experienced while trapped inside his 10-by-17-foot room. Evidence at the trial indicated the fire began about 2:35 p.m. In the intervening 14 minutes, Mitchell made 19 cellphone calls attempting to seek help. Mitchell’s calls were not answered. Mitchell was found several hours after the blaze was extinguished on the floor near his bed. An autopsy indicated he died from carbon monoxide poisoning after breathing toxic smoke.

After a house fire, get help from an experienced lawyer immediately

Fires at home are responsible for taking about 2,500 lives every year, as well as causing almost 15,000 injuries and billions of dollars in damage to property. Investigating the origin and cause of a fire can be a complicated and expensive process. It is important to get started on such an investigation as soon as possible after a destructive fire, and to make sure the cause of the fire is being investigated by a qualified professional.

Although firefighters are trained to put out fires, very few fire departments have the resources to train their personnel in chemistry, electricity, and other technical aspects of fire causation. Often, an independent fire origin and cause expert is necessary to investigate and determine the cause of a particular fire.

It may well be that the fire was the result of negligence by others and should have been avoided. The owner of a rental house, the manufacturer of a defective appliance (heater, stove, drier, etc.), the manufacturer of a defective fire alarm, the builder of a house, an electrician who installed the house’s wiring or who performed electrical repairs, a propane or natural gas company—depending on the circumstances surrounding a particular fire, there are countless potential causes that would need to be explored.

To successfully bring about a claim involving a fire in the home, clients need an experienced, educated attorney on their side. They also need an attorney with the financial resources to take the case to trial. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have tried hundreds of cases to verdict and have settled hundreds more. We also have the financial resources to handle personal injury cases from start to finish. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we are committed to achieving justice for our clients, whatever the cost.

Contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson for your free case evaluation and to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free contact form located on this page.

by John Chapman

John Chapman is a licensed attorney with experience in complex commercial litigation (including securities fraud, RICO, shareholder oppression, and derivative actions) and personal injury litigation.