Rinh Thach, et al. v. City of Bridgeport, et al.: A Vietnamese immigrant who lost his wife and three children in a 2005 apartment fire has settled a lawsuit with the city of Bridgeport for $825,000.
The Thach family members were asleep in their apartment on Iranistan Avenue at around 4:30 a.m. on June 13, 2005 when the fire broke out in their kitchen.
Rinh Thach, then 37, ran out a back door and then around to the front of the apartment in order to try to get back inside to save the rest of his family. Thach’s lawyer, John J. LaCava, of Stamford, explained that the fire raging in the kitchen of the apartment was in Thach’s path to the children.
However, LaCava said firefighters would not let Thach back inside. Thach was already badly burned and suffering from smoke inhalation. He ended up in critical condition in the hospital.
Thach’s wife, Thi Luong Thach, 35, and 14-year-old son Anh Thach, were pronounced dead at the scene. Daughters Trinh Thach, 11, and Daisy Thach, 3, were later pronounced dead at nearby hospitals. The children attended Curiale School in Bridgeport.
Tenants on the first and the third floors were able to get out of the burning apartment building without any injuries, though nine people were left homeless from the blaze. The fire gutted the second and third floors of the wood-frame house, and took two hours to bring under control. One firefighter was taken to the hospital for heat exhaustion.
The family had come to the United States in 2001 from Vietnam, where the woman’s father had been an American soldier.
LaCava said fire marshals never determined the exact cause of the fire but believe it was accidentally set.
The city’s fire marshal, Bruce Collins, cited three main violations in the apartment building. There were no working smoke detectors, which landlords are required to provide by law. There were metals bars on the inside of some of the windows, preventing anyone from escaping through them. And a bedroom door that was a potential exit route was nailed shut.
The landlord, Hai Hoang Pham, was charged with several counts of criminally negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor. He later pled guilty and was sentenced to a suspended one year prison term and three years of probation.
LaCava also filed a defective premises lawsuit against Pham on Thach’s behalf, a claim that settled for an undisclosed amount in 2006, according to LaCava.
The attorney next sued the city of Bridgeport for failing to inspect the apartment building in which the fire occurred. By law, the Bridgeport Fire Marshal’s Office is required to inspect buildings with three or more apartments in them at least once a year. "Had they, they would’ve picked up the fire violations," LaCava said.
LaCava explained that it can be difficult to win such a claim against a municipality. The statute requires the plaintiff to prove that the city was reckless, not just negligent, in failing to conduct the building inspections.
Specifically, LaCava said if the fire marshal’s office was aware that a building wasn’t up to code and did nothing about it, then the plaintiff would only have to prove negligence. But if the fire marshal was unaware of the presence of violations, then the plaintiffs must prove recklessness, a higher standard.
In this case, LaCava said the city of Bridgeport lawyers were arguing that the city was unaware of the violations at the apartment building and that there was no recklessness, because inspections are a discretionary act and not a ministerial function.
"Normally, cities aren’t responsible for discretionary acts" of their officials and other employees, said LaCava. A common example of a discretionary act is a police officer stopping a car for a traffic violation and then letting the driver go with a warning and not a ticket.
"If ministerial, something has to be done," said LaCava. "In this case, there’s no thinking. The law requires you to do an inspection."
As the case grew closer to a trial date before Judge Barbara Bellis in Bridgeport, the two sides came to a settlement agreement earlier this month. Bridgeport’s City Council agreed to settle the claim for $825,000 "Do I feel the money he got from the city is a fair compensation for a family that died? No I don’t," said LaCava, who is no stranger to these fire lawsuits against municipalities, with one pending in Norwalk and another recently settled in Mystic for an undisclosed amount. "But these are difficult cases because of the higher standard. There was an offer made and my client decided to accept it."
Calls to the Office of the Corporation Counsel in Bridgeport were not returned last week. LaCava said Assistant Corporation Counsel Betsy Edwards worked on the settlement agreement on behalf of the city.
LaCava said Bridgeport also likely settled the case because officials wanted to keep a Global Positioning System controversy from 2007 out of the news.
That year, it was discovered that the city used GPS to monitor fire inspectors unbeknownst to the inspectors. The inverstigation found that inspectors were not doing the inspections they were supposed to be doing. Instead, some were going to other towns and spending as little as 30 minutes a day on work duties.
LaCava said that might have come up if the Thach case had gone to trial. "The city wanted to put all that to rest," he said. "They didn’t want to revisit that issue."
LaCava said his client is a changed man since losing his family from the fire. He’s very quiet. "He’s been solemn throughout the period I’ve known him," said LaCava.•