Case details

Owner failed to properly install and inspect fire alarms: plaintiff




Mediated Settlement

Result type

Not present

brain, coma
On the evening of April 14, 2010, plaintiff Wilma Mason, 44, a nanny, suffered serious from smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in an apartment at 215 Sanchez Street in San Francisco, where Mason was a resident. The fire started when Mason’s roommate accidentally deposited live cigarette ashes into the kitchen trash receptacle. The roommate claimed that after she disposed the ashes, she returned to her room while Mason was in her own room at the other end of the apartment. The roommate further claimed she smelled something and assumed Mason was burning her cooking, but later assumed something was “not right” and went to investigate roughly 25 to 30 minutes after she disposed the ashes. Mason spent a month in a coma due to the smoke inhalation and she developed subsequent related medical conditions. Mason sued Jeffrey Laughlin, the owner of the building, alleging negligence per se, in regards to violations of the San Francisco Building Code. Mason claimed that at least four smoke detectors were required in the apartment as of April 2012, per the Building Code, as a three-story apartment building having six dwelling units is considered to be a California Building Code Group R-2 Occupancy, and repairs costing greater than $1,000 and had been performed by Laughlin at that time. It was undisputed that there was only one smoke detector in Mason’s apartment; a hardwired, non-battery detector was mounted on the wall outside the bathroom not far from Mason’s room. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that, based on code requirements, Laughlin should have installed at least four smoke alarms, located on the ceiling or wall outside of each separate sleeping area in the immediate vicinity of the bedrooms, as well as in each bedroom. Counsel also contended that based on how the fire started and spread, it was highly probable that one of the four alarms would have alerted the occupants of the fire. Plaintiff’s counsel noted that in Laughlin’s answer to a special interrogatory, Laughlin said he performed a “visual inspection” of the subject detector a few months before the fire, but that in his deposition, he testified he pressed the button and heard the alarm emit sound. As such, plaintiff’s counsel argued that Laughlin provided contradictory sworn discovery responses as to the operability of the old, hardwired detector. Both Mason and her roommate testified that the subject smoke alarm did not sound on the night of the fire. However, Mason, who had lived in the apartment for over six years, claimed the alarm would sound when people took showers. The scorched and melted alarm was tested in the presence of all experts and the alarm did sound an alert when synthetic smoke was sprayed into it. Laughlin claimed that Mason tampered with the subject detector so that she could burn candles. He testified in his deposition that Mason’s roommate told him that Mason disconnected the smoke detector, but in the roommate’s deposition, she denied ever telling anyone that Mason disconnected the smoke detector. Laughlin further testified that he found the subject alarm on a table in Mason’s room after the fire, which he argued meant that Mason had removed it from the wall. Defense counsel presented testimony from someone who performed a rudimentary test on the building’s electrical line after the fire and claimed the test showed there was power, but someone had already re-set the circuit breakers., Mason suffered severe smoke inhalation, and was taken unconscious from her apartment and brought to an emergency room. She was subsequently kept in a medically induced coma for nearly a month, requiring medical ventilation until May 4, 2002. Mason was later discharged from rehabilitation on May 16, 2002, with a discharge summary note stating that her condition was “complicated by the development of ARDS [acute respiratory distress syndrome], acute kidney injury requiring CRRT [continuous renal replacement therapy], deep vein thrombosis [DVT] of her left internal jugular vein, GI hemorrhage from duodenal ulcer, and critical illness myopathy.” However, Mason remained in rehabilitation through June 14, 2002, during which she received intense therapy and suffered DVT in her legs. Mason returned to work as a nanny after more than a year away. However, she claimed that she has continuing problems with breathing and asthma, and that her pulmonologist recommended costly medication for her condition. Thus, Mason claimed $1,205,268 in total past medical costs, and sought an unspecified amount for future medical costs and damages for her pain and suffering.
Superior Court of San Francisco County, San Francisco, CA

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