Supreme Court rules city can be sued in fatal fire
BRIDGEPORT - The city can be sued for failing to conduct annual inspections on a public housing unit that caught fire in 2009 killing a mother and her three young children, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a 5 to 1 decision, the state’s highest court overturned a lower court’s decision, throwing out the case and sending it back for trial.
“A jury, considering all the relevant circumstances, reasonably could find that the defendants’ persistent failure to inspect the decedents’ apartment and thousands of other multifamily units in Bridgeport in violation of their statutory duty under (state law) arose from and exemplified a pattern of reckless disregard for public health or safety and created a foreseeable and substantial risk that some tragedy of this general sort would occur, “the court ruled.
In a deposition, then-Fire Chief Brian Rooney admitted the fire marshal’s office did not have the resources to inspect the city’s public housing units and so didn’t do it, according to court records.
John Bochanis, who represents the family of 22-year-old Tiana Black and her three children, Ny-shon Williams, 5, and 4-year-old twins, Nyaisja and Tyaisja Williams, said he is prepared to begin trial.
“These are the least affluent persons who are living in units that were not inspected to prevent this type of tragedy from happening,” he said.
Daniel Krisch, who represented the city in the appeal, said they are exploring other options.
“We are disappointed in the decision, we think it expands municipal liability beyond what the legislature intended,” Krisch said.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight Nov. 13, 2009. When firefighters arrived, flames were billowing from the unit’s kitchen window.
Tyaisja was found on the floor of the dining room near the front door. Her twin sister was found on the living room couch. Neither child had any burns; both died from smoke inhalation.
Tiana Black was found by firefighters on the dining room floor near her daughter. She had burns on her arms, shoulders and face. Ny-shon was found lying at the foot of a second-floor bedroom window. He also died from smoke inhalation.
In the days following the fire, residents of the housing complex and community activists raised questions about fire safety in the West Side complex, citing the unit’s single door for entry and exits and the lack of sprinklers and fire escapes. City officials contended the P.T. Barnum complex complied with all fire codes.
A state fire marshal’s report later declared the fire started when a gas stove rear burner that had been left on ignited the kitchen counter and cabinets. The report stated Black had been intoxicated at the time -- with a blood/alcohol level of .23 -- which “would likely have impaired her ability to respond appropriately to the initial alarm and to the fire itself.”
However, Black’s family persisted in their contention about safety concerns at the housing complex and filed lawsuits against the city, the housing authority and contractors who had renovated the complex. The Bridgeport Housing Authority and the contractor, Worth Construction Co., of Bethel, later agreed to a settlement amount at $2.75 million.
A Superior Court judge had thrown out the lawsuit against the city ruling the city was immune from being sued in the case because the plaintiff had failed to present any evidence to contradict the defendants’ claim that they were not aware of any fire hazards at the apartment.