Fatal Fire Suit Goes Before Connecticut Supreme Court

By DAVE COLLINS | January 17, 2017

The Connecticut Supreme Court is taking up the question of whether Bridgeport officials can be sued in connection with a fire at a public housing complex that killed a mother and her three children in 2009.

Tiana Black, her 4-year-old twin daughters and her 5-year-old son died in the early morning fire in their apartment at the P.T. Barnum complex, which is run by the city’s Housing Authority. Black’s mother, Twila Williams, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2010, alleging city officials failed to inspect the apartment and there were fire code violations that may have slowed the family’s response in fleeing the fire.

Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Mary Sommer dismissed claims in the lawsuit against city officials in 2013. Sommer ruled that the city officials were immune from the lawsuit under state law. One exemption to immunity would be if officials’ failure to inspect the building was a “reckless disregard for health and safety,” but the judge said there was no evidence of that.

But the state Appellate Court reversed Sommer’s decision in 2015, saying it was up to a jury to decide whether officials’ failure to inspect was reckless.

City officials appealed to the Supreme Court, which is set to hear arguments in the case Thursday.

Williams’ lawyer, John Bochanis, wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court that the city fire marshal did not inspect the housing complex every year as required by state law. He said smoke detectors in the two-story apartment were not interconnected – meaning when one sounds, they all sound – as required by law.

“If the smoke detectors had been interconnected it would have led to earlier notification of a fire or smoke condition,” Bochanis wrote.

Authorities said the fire began in the first-floor kitchen at about 1 a.m. when a gas stove burner was left on. Officials also said Black was intoxicated at the time. Investigators said Black and her children died of smoke inhalation while trying to flee.

Bochanis wrote that the smoke detectors on the second floor, where the bedrooms were, were not activated by the smoke detectors on the first floor.

Bochanis and the city’s lawyer, Daniel Krish, declined to comment. Williams did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The Appellate Court noted that although the Bridgeport fire marshal’s office is required to inspect all multifamily homes in the city every year, Fire Marshal William Cosgrove and Fire Chief Brian Rooney did not believe the P.T. Barnum apartments had to be inspected annually. The apartments were not on the list of multifamily homes provided by the tax assessor to the fire marshal every year, because the complex is not on city tax rolls, according to court documents.

Cosgrove and Rooney, who are among the defendants in the lawsuit, both retired last year. They and other officials deny allegations of being reckless.

The Housing Authority and a contractor that worked on the apartment building, who also were defendants in the lawsuit, agreed to a $2.75 million settlement with Williams, but disagreed on who should pay it, the Connecticut Post reported. A judge ruled the contractor should pay.

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