$3 Million Verdict for Daughter in Wrongful Death of Mother
Landlord who installed deficient electrical outlet held liable for death of tenant.
After the twelve-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the only child of a 55-year-old woman who was killed in an apartment fire in 2014. The verdict exceeded the plaintiff’s last California Civil Procedure Section 998 settlement demand of $1,500,000. Altair attorney Andje Medina refused to accept the final defense pre-trial settlement offer of $150,000 and took the case to trial achieving justice for a deserving client.
The decedent, Lorraine Belo, was home on June 29, 2014, shortly after 10:00 p.m. when a fire started in the hallway closet of a small 300 square foot studio apartment that she rented from the defendant. The fire quickly spread from Ms. Belo’s closet into her living space and engulfed her front door in flames. It is unknown whether the decedent was awake or asleep at the time the fire started.
Firefighters responded to the apartment building and found Ms. Belo unconscious from smoke inhalation on her kitchen floor right beneath a window which served as an access point to her fire escape. She was transported to the hospital where she remained for nine days before passing away from complications associated with smoke inhalation.
At trial, plaintiff established that the fire started because of a negligently installed electrical outlet in the decedent’s closet. The electrical outlet had been added to the electrical system approximately 10-20 years prior to the fire. This type of electrical addition required a permit and should have been performed by a qualified electrician. However, the evidence indicated no permit was obtained for the installation and the defendant had no records showing who installed the outlet.
Plaintiff’s experts testified that the subject electrical outlet was ungrounded—meaning that there was no ground wire that would trip the circuit breaker in the event of an electrical short— and that it was installed in a careless manner with loose, resistive wiring. Plaintiff contended that the faulty wiring caused the electrical outlet to overheat and start the fire. Plaintiff’s theory was supported by the testimony of the San Francisco Fire Department Arson Investigator who also determined that the fire was electrical in nature.
Defendant denied that the fire was electrical. Defendant’s experts testified that based on photographs of the outlet, they believed that it was grounded. The defendant’s experts opined that the fire damage in and around the outlet suggested that it was attacked externally by fire rather than being the source of the fire. The defendant’s experts did not put forth an alternative fire cause, but the defendant suggested that the decedent had intentionally started the fire herself.
Plaintiff sought only general damages for the loss of her mother’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support. The plaintiff was financially independent of her mother and there was no claim for economic damages.
Altair attorneys are not afraid to take challenging cases to trial and demand justice for clients when defendants refuse to accept responsibility and/or undervalue the harm they have caused.