Bronx Apartment Fire Survivors File First Lawsuit

Two survivors of the deadly fire that ravaged a Bronx apartment building and claimed 17 victims have recently filed a lawsuit against the building's former and current owners.

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

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— Updated on January 25, 2022

Bronx Apartment Fire Survivors File First Lawsuit

The lawsuit, which seeks $1 billion in damages, alleges that the owners kept the building in a defective condition. Additionally, the lawsuit claims the owners failed to maintain basic safety standards and fire prevention measures. This incident is one of the deadliest fires in New York City history. As such, the lawsuit is the first of what will likely be many.

How Did The Bronx Apartment Fire Happen?

On January 9, 2022, shortly before 11 am, a fire began to tear through the 19-story, 120-unit building located at 333 East 181st Street in the Tremont section of the Bronx. The five-alarm blaze began in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors. The fire started when a space heater malfunctioned in the apartment’s bedroom. Then, the fire traveled through an open door in the apartment, which caused the smoke to spread throughout the building. The smoke extended the entire height of the building, trapping victims inside.

17 people, including eight children, perished in the blaze. At least 63 tenants suffered injuries, 32 of which sustained life-threatening injuries.

The Response to the Bronx apartment fire

Nearly 200 members of the New York City’s Fire Department responded. However, many local engines reported a short staff from people calling out sick due to COVID-19. Andrew Ansbro, president of the FDNY Uniformed Firefighters Association, felt that such short-staffing contributed to the fire’s damaging effects. Ansbro explained that Engine 48, the first engine to respond, only had four out of the five called firefighters. “Several of the first engines were in the same situation. If there was adequate staffing, the fire could have been put out faster, and people would have received medical aid sooner,” Ansbro opined. “We feel this is an absolute case where staffing would have made a difference.”  However, FDNY officials have denied this assertion and have maintained that the responding units were fully staffed.

History of the Building

The building, part of a complex previously known as Twin Parks, went up in 1972 as part of an urban renewal project. Constructed under federal guidelines, the building may not have the same construction code as the city and “was potentially built outside the New York City Fire Code,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro noted at a press briefing. Though it appears “that was not a factor,” in the fire, he added.

The Lawsuit’s Allegations

Within a week of the fire, two survivors, Rosa Reyes and Felix Martinez, filed a lawsuit in Bronx Supreme Court. The lead plaintiffs filed on behalf of themselves as well as other victims of the fire. The plaintiffs are also seeking class action status. The named defendants include the current owners, Bronx Phase III Preservation LLC, and its three-member companies, Lich Investment Group, Belveron Group, and Camber Property Group, as well as its former owners Cammeby’s International Group and Rubin Schron, who sold the property in December 2019.

The complaint alleges the defendants failed to ensure the front steel doors of its apartments were self-closing. This condition caused the fire’s rapid spread. The complaint further alleges the defendants failed to ensure that the smoke detectors and alarms were functional. The alarms frequently went off without the presence of a fire. As a result, some residents initially assumed the alarms during the fire were false. The defendants also allegedly failed to maintain a sprinkler system, intercom system, or properly working electrical lines. The defendants’ failure to provide adequate and lawful heat is another basis of the negligence claims. The lack of adequate and lawful heat resulted in the use of the malfunctioning space heater. The plaintiffs are seeking $1 billion in compensatory damages and allege that the potential class members are also entitled to $2 billion in punitive damages for the defendants’ “wanton and reckless conduct.”

In an emailed statement on behalf of the owners, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation state that: “We are devastated by this terrible tragedy and are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other agencies as they continue to investigate.”

How Can the Experts Weigh in?

Expert witnesses will undoubtedly play a major role in this litigation, with a focus on whether the building’s owners negligently maintained the property. But firstly, a fire investigator needs to determine the cause of the blaze and how it spread. A fire investigator can testify as to the origins of the fire. As of now, the start of the fire appeared to be due to a malfunctioning space heater. An issue for defendants to defend is whether the fire spread due to a negligently maintained door, alarm system, or sprinkler.

In order to prove negligence, experts in the fields of fire safety, engineering, and safety compliance can help establish the exact duty of care in terms of fire safety. These experts can also expound upon the structural issues of the building that potentially caused the spread of the fire.

Interestingly, back in 2013, the former building owners received $25 million in state loans to make repairs. Yet, they continued to amass two dozen complaints and violations with the city’s Department of Buildings over the following year. However, none of these violations were related to fire hazards or safety issues. Whether the owners built the building outside of the standard fire codes of the city is another issue that remains open. Although violations of building code ordinances do not constitute negligence per se, it can still constitute evidence of potential negligence. Therefore, it’s likely the building’s history and its codes will come into play at trial. Additionally, the building’s track record with the Department of Buildings can also be a factor at a trial. Expert witnesses in these fields will be critical in establishing (or defending against negligence.

The Future of Litigation From Bronx Apartment Fire

With a growing list of plaintiffs in the current lawsuit and a notice of claim filed with the Office of the Comptroller naming the Department of Buildings, Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, former Mayor de Blasio, and other city officials as defendants, it is clear that this litigation is still in its early stages with more developments to come.

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