A 72-year-old woman from the Philippines and her lawyers will be paid $1 million under a settlement reached last week of the lawsuit over her husband’s death in a fire at the home where she worked as a maid.
The lawyers agreed to resolve the case on Jan. 10, the third anniversary of the day Dale Darnell, 74, died after being trapped in the 200-square-foot servants’ quarters in the basement of a 10,000-square-foot mansion in Sandy Springs, according to lead plaintiff’s counsel Michael Neff, who represented Lidia Darnell, the widow.
Defense attorney George Duncan Jr. of Duncan & Adair said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to comment until the money is paid and the agreement is signed, which will likely be next week if the deal goes through.
The plaintiff’s evidence included a floor plan diagram showing the housekeeper’s apartment as a space about the size of a one-car garage without a window or an outside door. Also included was a photo of the large, upscale home.
Darnell was last seen at 2 p.m. sleeping on the bed in his apartment, according to the complaint. Lidia Darnell was working. She was upstairs cleaning the master bedroom when the fire broke out around 3 p.m. Smoke and flames quickly engulfed the basement apartment. Darnell had no escape route, and rescuers couldn’t reach him, Neff said.
The lack of an exterior door and window in sleeping quarters violates building codes, as does the placement of a potentially flammable furnace closet in the apartment, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s lawyers used the building code violations to establish liability of the homeowner, Raymond Wooldridge.
Neff said Wooldridge was home when the fire broke out and “acted heroically” to try to save Darnell, as did the widow and firefighters. But no one could get through the blaze to the basement apartment.
Wooldridge’s biography on the website of his real estate company RW Development—included in plaintiff’s evidence—says he “initially made his fortune in the modular building industry,” which “would hardly exist” without his efforts. The bio took note of his former ownership of an interest in the NBA team, the Hornets, which he and other owners moved from Charlotte to New Orleans. His latest focus: rebuilding the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The website www.rwdevco.com says the firm’s holdings have a “build-out value in excess of $1.7 billion.”
Wooldridge’s attorney, Duncan, was retained by AIG Insurance under a $10 million homeowner’s policy, according to Neff.
Neff said the couple had lived in the Wooldridge home for 15 years. They initially occupied the entire 1,200-square-foot basement, which included an exterior door and eight windows. But, Neff said, Wooldridge decided to create a personal gym there and moved the housekeeper and her husband into the smaller space.
Investigators never determined the cause of the fire, according to the lawsuit. The case was set for trial this week before Fulton County State Court Chief Judge Patsy Porter.
“I think jurors would have a universal fear,” Neff said. “Dying in a fire is a horrible way to die.”
If the case had gone to trial, the plaintiff would have presented an expert witness to describe how Darnell died. His body was found in the apartment’s small bathroom. Dr. Kimberly Collins, a forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy, was expected to testify that he died from “carbon monoxide toxicity and thermal injuries,” according to a plaintiff’s brief.
Neff said the plaintiff’s evidence indicated Darnell survived for about 19 minutes after the fire began. He closed himself up in the bathroom to escape the flames and suffocated there. It was a more prolonged horror than burning, Neff said. The brief also said Darnell was yelling for help before he lost consciousness. Soot was found in his lung tissue.
The parties mediated the case a month ago without success. “Their last number was $500,000,” Neff said. “My offer was a penny under $1 million.”
That was because AIG had wanted to keep the settlement under $1 million, Neff said.
Neff said the defense held the value of the case down because of Darnell’s age and health problems, including cancer, stroke and dementia. However, he added, “I just felt the value of life intrinsically was a seven-figure amount.” Instead of age and health, the plaintiff’s side focused on suffering.
Neff credited the mediator, Gino Brogdon of Henning Mediation & Arbitration Service, with bringing the parties together. He said Brogdon kept communicating with both sides after the failed meeting, leading them to settle last week. The deal was struck at 3 p.m. Jan. 10, which Neff said was three years to the hour after Darnell’s death.
In addition to Neff, the plaintiff’s team included: D. Dwayne Adams, T. Shane Peagler and Susan Cremer of Neff’s firm and Todd Henningsen of Henningsen Injury Attorneys.
Neff said his client moved in with relatives after the fire. He said she still grieves and talks to her husband’s picture daily. With the settlement money, he said, she plans to move back to the Philippines.
The case is Darnell v. Wooldridge, No. 11EV013010B.