The city of Bridgeport and its fire department cannot escape trial over their alleged liability in a fire that killed a woman and her three children by failing to inspect their apartment’s smoke detectors, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a 4-2 decision, the state’s high court agreed with the Connecticut Appellate Court that a jury could reasonably find the Bridgeport Fire Department’s conduct demonstrated “a reckless disregard for health or safety under all the relevant circumstances.”
The Appellate Court ruling reversed a Superior Court’s summary judgment order for the defendants, which found the city and fire department were immune from liability under Connecticut’s General Statute 52-557n. The case will be remanded back to Bridgeport Superior Court for trial next year.
Attorneys for the family’s estate said the ruling was not a surprise.
“The decision clarifies the city’s inaction in inspecting multifamily residences,” said John Bochanis, partner with Daly, Weihing & Bochanis in Bridgeport. “This decision protects the public at large by enforcing the municipal obligation that they have to annually inspect residences with three families or more.”
The city never conducted annual fire inspections at the P.T. Barnum complex as required by state statute, Bochanis said.
No one from the Bridgeport Housing Authority responded to a request for comment Monday.
According to Monday’s decision, the fire chief said in deposition that the department didn’t have the proper funding to keep up with inspections.
The estate is seeking monetary damages as it awaits a trial next year. Bochanis declined to say how much the estate is seeking.
The family was killed in the city’s largest public housing complex. The family’s estate alleged the fire department “failed to conduct a statutorily required annual fire safety inspection of the apartment and that the defendants knew or should have known about and remedied a number of asserted defects in the apartment, including the absence of fire escapes and photoelectric smoke detectors.”
According to the Connecticut Post, one lawsuit was dropped against the city after the Bridgeport Housing Authority and the contractor, Worth Construction Co. of Bethel, agreed to a $2.75 million settlement. At the time in 2013, the judge ordered Worth to pay the settlement, according to the Post.
Bochanis declined to discuss the settlement, but said it does not affect the decision by the high court to remand the case back to Bridgeport Superior Court for a trial in 2018.
The high court singled out both lower courts for improperly articulating the standard that governs the reckless-disregard exception to municipality immunity.
Writing for the majority, Justice Carmen Espinosa wrote that a jury “reasonably could find that the defendants’ persistent failure to inspect the decedents’ apartments and thousands of other multifamily units in Bridgeport in violation of their statutory duty … arose from and exemplified a pattern of reckless disregard for public health or safety and created a foreseeable and substantial risk that some tragedy of this general sort would occur, and accordingly, the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on that issue.”
In writing the dissent, Justice Andrew McDonald said, “The trial court properly concluded that the municipal defendants were shielded from liability under 52-557n (b) (8) for failure to inspect the subject premises.” McDonald, who was joined by Justice Richard Palmer, wrote that the “principal flaws” in the analysis of the majority include failing to sufficiently distinguish reckless disregard from negligence and failing to recognize that the burden of preventing the risk of harm is an essential element of recklessness.
Attorney Daniel Krisch of Halloran & Sage represents the city of Bridgeport. He said Monday that the city is “disappointed in the decision. We think it expands municipal liability well beyond what the Legislature intended and we are considering our options. The only real option is a motion for reconsideration, which we are considering.”
Joining Espinosa in the majority were Chief Justice Chase Rogers and Justices Dennis Eveleigh and Christine Vertefeuille.
Partner Thomas Weihing is assisting Bochanis.