Families seek trial in deaths

City's legal bill already exceeds $500,000 in case

When the families of a young couple sued Augusta over their deaths from a mobile home fire in 2006 they blamed on negligence by an electrical inspector, the city faced two options: settle or likely pay a hefty amount in legal fees to fight the case.

 

The city chose the latter. So far, the legal bill in the 4-year-old case has topped $500,000 -- and is climbing.

The families of Ryan Holt and Michelle Borror claim that the city's chief electrical inspector, Lewis Vann, failed to do a routine reconnection inspection to check for safety violations but still gave Georgia Power the authority to restore electricity to a 37-year-old trailer on Aug. 1, 2006. The city, which has acknowledged that Vann didn't go inside the home, is saying that he wasn't required to do so, and the cause of the fire hasn't been determined.

The city is seeking to have the joined lawsuits thrown out to prevent the possibility a jury could find Vann negligent and decide on millions of dollars in damages.

Georgia Power and one of the landlords who rented the trailer have settled the claims against them for an undisclosed amount.

Holt, 19, and Borror, 20, had moved into the Buck Road trailer the day after Vann told Georgia Power it could restore electricity there. The couple, who were inseparable high school sweethearts, were intent on making their first home together and needed an affordable place to live, say family members.

But on Aug. 22, 2006, a fire broke out in the kitchen. Firefighters reported that the mobile home was engulfed in flames when they arrived at 2:11 a.m. They found Holt's and Borror's bodies inside.

Keith Finley, Holt's stepfather and an electrician, said he and Holt's mother, Helen Finley, met the fire department's arson investigator at the time, Lt. G.B. Hannan, at the scene soon afterward. Hannan told them there was supposed to have been an electrical inspection, Finley said.

AFTER HOLT AND BORROR were buried next to each other at Bellevue Memorial Gardens, Finley went to see Rob Sherman, the head of the city's licensing and inspections department.

Finley said Sherman told him the inspection of any home left vacant for more than 180 days was intended to check for signs of blight -- junk cars and unmowed grass -- not for electrical safety.

"When (Sherman) told me that, all these sirens started going off in my head," Finley said. "If you're looking for overgrown grass, why do you need an electrical inspector?"

Sherman has testified that the policy requiring a reconnection inspection before restoring power enables the city to deny electricity service for rundown properties and those that could become crack houses.

Asked last week whether the city has discontinued reconnection inspections since the lawsuits were filed, as alleged in court documents, Sherman said he couldn't comment because of the pending litigation.

Finley called four city electrical inspectors, telling them he had a rental unit left vacant for more than 180 days. He asked them what a reconnection inspection was and what it required, and Finley tape-recorded their responses. All four said it was a basic safety inspection during which the inspector looks for any obviously dangerous conditions such as exposed wiring or the lack of smoke detectors, according to transcripts of the conversations filed in court documents.

The plaintiffs' attorneys have the recordings, along with sworn statements from electrical inspectors in other cities, a retired Georgia Power supervisor, local landlords and trailer park managers who describe a reconnection inspection as requiring an in-house examination.

THE CITY ASKED Superior Court Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. to toss out the lawsuits based on the legal principle that governments have sovereign immunity. The immunity makes it nearly impossible to successfully sue a city. Brown denied the city's request last year, writing in his order that there are facts that a jury should decide.

Joe Neal Jr., the families' lead attorney, said Brown denied the city summary judgment because sovereign immunity doesn't apply when the government has a mandatory policy that an employee ignores and the result is injury or death.

The evidence in this case is that the city had a policy requiring the reconnection inspections, and it required the inspector to go into the home to do it, Neal said.

According to the plaintiffs' electrical expert witness, Vann should have spotted a number of code violations that were visible even without going inside, such as wires hanging under the trailer and exposed wiring on the water heater.

"This happened because someone was completely negligent," said Susan Givens, Borror's mother. "They would be here if not for that."

She and Helen Finley said people should be warned that if they do not obtain their own electrical inspection before moving into a home, there's no way to know the property is safe.

In sworn testimony, Vann said he looked around the outside of the trailer when he went there on Aug. 1, 2006, and he didn't see any problems. Although he left a tag on the door with the phone number to call to reschedule the inspection, the next day he faxed Georgia Power the form needed to restore power.

THE CITY CONTENDS in court documents that Vann performed his duties as required and there's no reliable proof to determine the exact cause of the fire, or to know whether there was a working smoke detector inside the mobile home. The city argues that if the fire wasn't electrical, Vann's actions had nothing to with the blaze that killed the couple.

Daniel Hamilton, who is representing Vann in this case, said the Georgia Court of Appeals is being asked to decide if the families are barred from bringing suit based on sovereign immunity. If the court agrees, that ends the cases.

However, if the Court of Appeals decides Brown's ruling was correct, the joined lawsuits will return to Columbia County Superior Court for trial, unless there is a settlement. The case was moved to Columbia County because one of the landlords lived there.

Holt's stepfather would like to see the case go to trial so everyone learns what happened, he said. The families couldn't bear it if the same thing happened again, Finley said.

Holt was working for his stepfather and intended to earn a degree at Augusta State University, Finley said, adding that he had attended his first college classes the day before he died.

"When you think about it," Givens said, "my daughter and Ryan were just beginning their lives."

Electrical inspection release, reconnect approval and fire department report on the fire.

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