In January, tenants of a Los Angeles high-rise apartment building filed suit in California state court, alleging that the fire that swept through two floors injuring 14 was due to the landlord’s failure to make necessary improvements. The fact that the Barrington Plaza Apartments has a history of fire could strengthen the case for premises liability being proposed as a class action.
According to a report in Law360, the lawsuit claims that an earlier fire “broke out in October 2013 on the 11th floor of the 25-story building and sent two people to the hospital due to smoke exposure.” In that incident, “fire alarms didn't go off, the building's intercom system didn't give any warnings about the emergency and the fire escape stairs filled with smoke.”
Without alarms to warn them, tenants didn’t attempt to evacuate until “the building's hallways, exit path, and ‘fire-exit’ stairways had filled with thick black smoke, preventing tenants from safely escaping the building.” After that incident, seven tenants “filed a lawsuit accusing Douglas Emmett and Barrington Pacific of negligence, but the plaintiffs ultimately dismissed the suit, court records show.”
The Law360 article does not reveal why the plaintiffs withdrew the 2013 action. Still, it’s possible that the landlords made promises to modernize fire safety in the building as part of a confidential settlement to avoid litigation. A prudent landlord might have seen the advantage of upgrading to protect lives and property.
After all, history could repeat itself. But regardless of whether promises had been made, the plaintiff tenants say Douglas Emmett Inc. and Barrington Pacific LLC did not make improvements to the property: no sprinklers, no serviceable fire alarms, no usable fire exits or other basic safety measures.
Thus, the stage was set for the 2020 fire. When that blaze broke out “on the sixth and seventh floors of the building,… residents didn't hear any alarms or warnings. Tenants only knew to flee when neighbors started knocking on each others' doors.”
According to Los Angeles Fire Department (“LAFD”) Capt. Erik Scott, when firefighters arrived at the building, residents were "literally hanging out of windows." Firefighters rescued 15 people from the roof of the building. “Two firefighters … and 11 civilians were injured during the fire, including a 3-month-old baby.”
Can landlords be liable for negligence if a building is up to code?
According to LAFD, Barrington Plaza is “up to code,” that is, for a building constructed in 1961. For example, the code does not require buildings built before 1974 to have sprinklers. The question then becomes, Can a landlord be liable for harm due to a fire in a building that meets the legal requirements for fire safety? Landlords will say emphatically no. But the answer could be yes, because of evolving standards for safety.
Negligence in a premises liability case relies on a determination of whether the landlord was reasonable. A jury considers many factors, including whether the landlord should have known of the danger. The 2013 fire strongly suggests that Douglas Emmett Inc. and Barrington Pacific LLC were aware of the threat. The next question then is whether there were reasonable steps the landlord should have taken to prevent a recurrence. Factors to consider include:
- Whether effective measures to prevent injuries due to fires exist
- Whether those measures are reasonable in terms of cost
Certainly, the technology available to landlords today is more advanced than it was 1974, the cut-off date for the LA Fire Code. In fact, today’s technology might even be more advanced than it was the last time the code was updated. Are some landlords doing more than the code requires simply because it’s the right thing to do? Are improvements more cost-effective today because technology has improved? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the standard of what is reasonable for landlords would have gone up. There would be a duty to do more. A jury could easily find that the failure of these landlords to keep pace with society is negligence, and therefore they are accountable for the injuries their tenants suffered.
Plaintiffs in this lawsuit are claiming physical injuries and “serious emotional distress including extreme anguish, fright, horror, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, and shock as a result of seeing a fire engulf their place of residence." They are seeking a range of damages, including punitive damages, which courts only award when a defendant has demonstrated the most egregious conduct.
We can’t help but wish these tenants well with their lawsuit, not just because of the harm they suffered, but because a victory would send a strong message to landlords everywhere that they must do more to ensure the safety of tenants.
If you have been injured because a landlord failed to maintain reasonable safety standards on your property, you may be entitled to compensation. At Hockfelsen & Kani, we provide free consultations and case evaluations. To learn about your rights, call us or contact us online today.