ATLANTA -- A three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals heard lawyers argue Wednesday whether or not an Augusta city electrical inspector should be immune from being sued over the 2006 deaths of a couple in a house trailer with faulty wiring.
At issue is whether or not the inspector, Lewis Vann, was acting on his own, professional judgment or should have been following guidelines from the city when he approved the connection of electrical service to the mobile home three weeks before the deadly fire. The blaze claimed the lives of Ryan Holt, 19, and Michelle Borror, 20, in the home the Augusta high-school sweethearts shared on Buck Road.
Holt was learning to be an electrician from his stepfather who is in the business.
Someone used plastic tape to connect a kitchen light instead of a hardened, plastic “wiring nut,” and the error triggered the fire, according to an attorney hired by the victims’ families.
Now the Appeals Court decides will determine if those families can sue Vann. They have already reached settlements with Georgia Power Co. and one of the two landlords who owned the 37-year-old trailer, and the city has spent more than $500,000 on lawyers fighting to protect Vann.
Government employees are protected from lawsuits under the concept of sovereign immunity as long as they were using their professional judgment. However, if they were given specific instructions about what to do in each circumstance, then they can be sued for not following them.
Superior Court Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. ruled Vann can be sued, but Vann appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.
A lawyer for Vann, Dan Hamilton, told the three judges Vann was filing in for the usual inspector for mobile-home electricity connections. He also said the city never produced written instructions on how to perform such inspections, leaving it to the judgment of the inspectors.
“This is a very unfortunate series of events and the lives of two young people tragically taken. Nothing attempts to minimize that,” Hamilton said. “But Mr. Vann, it was a discretionary act that he was involved in.”
The families’ attorney, Joe Neal, argued that witnesses testified there were written guidelines that city inspectors followed, the standards used by cities across the country. Also, the city code requires full electrical inspections for mobile homes that have been vacant more than 180 days, as the one on Buck Road had been before the couple moved in.
He said Vann never went inside the trailer to see if it had the required smoke detectors.
“The job is simple: show up, open the door, look for smoke detectors, look at the (electrical) panel for any wires hanging out,” Neal said. “He did none of that.”
The judges gave no indication how they might view the case. They will issue a ruling in three to six months.