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A Philadelphia judge has kept the operators of a gasoline station on the legal hook for an employee’s illegal sale of gasoline to two people who used the product to set a Kensington rowhouse fire that killed three children. Mahogany, Shaune and Sharonda Porter were killed during the 4 a.m. May 14, 2005, arson, and the children’s mother, Jamika S. Porter, and four of Porter’s other children were seriously burned, according to Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge William J. Manfredi’s Dec. 27 opinion and Associated Press reports. According to the docket, defendants include Shano Associates, Naim Ahmed, Antul Ahmed and Sha Ahmed, who made preliminary objections in Porter v. Coyle. They argued that the sale of gas by their employee to the arsonists was illegal and negligent, but that they couldn’t be held liable for their employee’s conduct, Manfredi said. The defendants also argued that the use of the gasoline was not foreseeable and the arson-murder was the superseding cause of harm. Manfredi denied the preliminary objections Oct. 15, but the judge allowed the defendants to seek interlocutory appeal about the issue on Nov. 20 because this set of defendants may prevail on preliminary objections further along in the case. “We concluded that it may well be that defendants will ultimately prevail on some or all of these arguments – after discovery,” Manfredi said. “However, for the purposes of preliminary objections, we could not conclude that defendants were entitled to relief. To the contrary, we believe that under the circumstances presented here, plaintiffs may be able to prove a set of facts which establishes liability for the failure to prevent the sale of the gasoline that literally fueled the subsequent tragic events.” Zakeeyah Harper and Maheim Starks purchased beverages in glass bottles at a Sunoco gas station, then immediately poured out the liquid and pumped $5 worth of gas into the glass bottles, according to Manfredi. Harper, angry that her boyfriend had broken up with her for a relationship with another woman, and Starks, Harper’s codefendant, firebombed the woman’s house, located a few blocks away from the service station in the 1800 block of East Clementine Street, according to the AP. Harper and Starks were convicted during a trial of murder and other charges. Manfredi said in his opinion that gasoline is a dangerous substance and the gas station clerk is not absolved of some responsibility in the murder for allowing the illegal sale of gasoline. “Gasoline is, by its nature, a dangerous commodity. It is for this reason that the law places numerous conditions and constraints on its sale and dispensing. Here, the circumstances of the dispensing of the gasoline to Starks and Harper was nothing if not a portent of flaming tragedy,” Manfredi wrote. “The bottles were not an approved container. Indeed, they were the antithesis of an approved container. Gas in a bottle conjures up nothing if not the specter of a Molotov cocktail. The fact that the station attendant may not have known precisely what these two murderers had in mind when he let them illegally purchase the instrumentalities of the death and destruction they were about to inflict, does not absolve him of his responsibility.” Plaintiffs include Jamika Porter, the mother of the murdered children, the surviving children and the estates of the murdered children. Other defendants include Harper, Starks, Sunoco Inc., Robert N. Coyle Sr. & Sons Real Estate Inc. and other related entities, among others. In May, Harper gave up her right to appeal in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment, the AP reported. Harper, 25, is currently being held on a life imprisonment sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, which houses all female capital case inmates. Starks, 25, is currently being held in the medium-security State Correctional Institution at Somerset. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants did not return phone calls before press time. (Copies of the four-page opinion in Porter v. Coyle, PICS No. 08-0049, are available from The Legal Intelligencer . Please refer to page 9 for ordering information.)

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