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Four young adults were tragically killed in an apartment fire in 2019 in the upstairs apartment of a four-unit building, which started at about 3:00 am.
Doug Maynard worked with several other North Carolina-based and Georgia-based attorneys to secure a $10,000,000 settlement for the estates of the decedents.1 Doug was lead co-counsel for two of the four estates. He and a Georgia attorney, who represented the other two estates, primarily handled settlement the negotiations.
The attorneys filed two separate lawsuits — one by two of the estates and another by the other two estates — against the apartment complex, the county, and the 911 operators in their official and individual capacities.
Governmental Immunity Issues
The cases involved complex immunity and insurance coverage issues which required properly pleading the allegations in the lawsuit. Lawsuits involving the alleged negligence of governmental entities and their employees present numerous land minds requiring careful navigation by the attorney to avoid the case being simply dismissed by the court.
Counties and the public officials generally have immunity for damages caused by their negligence. However, public employees do not usually have immunity. Whether the 911 operators qualified as “public officials” or “public employees” or whether they were immune from liability due to a statute that covers 911 call center providers, was disputed.
The county’s insurance policies were obtained pre-suit via public records request. The applicable governmental insurance policies had a non-waiver of governmental immunity provision, so they only covered the actions of the 911 operators in their individual capacities as public employees, if the 911 operators qualified as “public employees.”
Proving Negligence in a Wrongful Death Claim
Counsels for the estate were able to obtain numerous documents through public records requests (Freedom of Information) as well as information through pre-suit consent protective orders, including:
- Unredacted 911 calls of the downstairs cigarette-smoking apartment occupant who was the first to call 911, an occupant of the other upstairs apartment who successfully jumped to safety, and one of the decedents
- Video interviews taken by officers
- The dashcam video of the officer’s vehicle who was first on the scene
- The fire marshal’s file, including photos
- Police department files
- 911 training records and manuals
The investigation revealed that when the first officer arrived at the apartment complex, the front of the apartment building — including the wooden steps — was fully engulfed. However, the rear of the apartment building was not, and suffered virtually no damage in the fire.
Wrongful Death Claim Against the Apartment Complex
The claims against the apartment complex were resolved after a joint time limit/policy demand on behalf of the four estates was accepted shortly before the scheduled depositions of the 911 operators.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys’ research showed that the apartment complex was aware, or should have been aware, of dangerous conditions including, but not limited to:
- A cigarette bucket beneath the wooden staircase in the front of the building surrounded by flammable debris
- A building occupant who routinely smoked and drank alcohol in a chair in front of the apartment and discarded cigarettes near and around the metal bucket
- Potential issues with the apartments' back bedroom window. Buildings are required to have two exits. The back window served as the “second” exit.
The apartment complex disputed liability and that it was responsible for the deaths.
Lawsuit Against the 911 Operators and the County
A joint time limit/policy limit demand was submitted to the county insurer by all four estates shortly after the depositions of the 911 operators. The primary allegations were that the county training manual only contained one directive for the operators handling a structure fire with occupants trapped: “If anyone is still inside and it is safe to do so, please ask them to leave.”
Both 911 operators confirmed such was not done. Instead, the occupants were advised not to open a window through which they could have jumped to their safety. They were instructed to stay in place until firefighters arrived. The primary 911 operator, against county policy, repeatedly promised that emergency personnel would get the decedents out. Eventually, the 911 operator suggested they break a window but by that time it was too late. When firefighters finally accessed the apartment through the back window area, three of the young adults were dead, and the fourth died shortly afterward. The 911 operators had no specific training on fire calls and had never handled a structure fire with occupants in a structure.
In addition, although a smoke detector can be clearly heard beeping in the background, the 911 operator thought the caller said “fight” and not “fire” and initially only dispatched a police car to the site.
Wrongful Death Attorneys & Their Impact
Doug and the rest of the attorneys involved were able to secure a $10 million settlement for the decedents’ estates for policy limits without a trial. The trial would have been emotionally difficult for the parents and families of the young adults who tragically perished in the fire, as well as everyone else involved. The 911 operators were truly remorseful and acknowledged their shortcomings in handling the call. Much of the blame lay with the inadequate training they received. The 911 center was also understaffed on the night of the call. Through the settlement for policy limits they were able to avoid the families having to relive the tragedy over again.
A wrongful death is a tragic act of personal injury. Like all personal injury cases, each is different and must be evaluated separately. Results like this do not guarantee a similar outcome, but the Law Offices of C. Douglas Maynard, Jr. will fight to secure the compensation to which the estate is entitled.
If a family member has passed away due to the negligence, recklessness, or intentional actions of another, you may be entitled to compensation for damages and the impact it has had on your life. Doug Maynard is an experienced personal injury lawyer who will fight for you.
Let's discuss the details of your case.
1The cases were resolved in 2022.