An appeals court ruled against the city of Augusta on Thursday in a civil lawsuit filed in connection with the 2006 fire deaths of a young couple.
The families of Ryan Holt, 19, and Michelle Borror, 20, had sued city inspector Lewis Vann, contending Holt and Borror would be alive, saved by a fire alarm, if Vann had properly conducted a routine electrical inspection.
Holt and Borror died of smoke inhalation when a fire started in a kitchen electrical outlet in the early-morning hours of Aug. 22, 2006.
The city appealed a ruling by Superior Court Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. in which the judge rejected the city’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. On Thursday, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled Brown was right to deny summary judgment because there are questions of disputed facts that a jury must decide.
So far, the case has cost taxpayers more than $500,000 in legal bills.
City general counsel Andrew MacKenzie said Thursday that the Augusta Commission will need to decide whether the case should be appealed further to the Georgia Supreme Court or go to trial. The case, which is being handled by outside legal counsel Daniel Hamilton, who did not return calls Thursday, had been through mediation but a settlement is not out of the question, MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie said that in such cases, when there is room to debate whether immunity applies, there is a greater chance of winning a reversal.
Attorney Joe Neal Jr., who is representing Holt’s and Borror’s families, said Thursday it was no close case; the Court of Appeals rejected every argument the city presented.
“They can try but it ain’t going to work,” Neal said of further appeal.
Neal has asked Brown for a pretrial hearing. A date hasn’t been set. The lawsuit was filed in Columbia County, instead of Richmond County, because one of the owners of the mobile home where Holt and Borror died is a resident of Columbia County.
Vann and the city tried to argue there was no case because Vann didn’t have to enter the 37-year-old Buck Road trailer that Holt and Borror rented to do an adequate electrical inspection Aug. 1, 2006.
Vann contends he went to Buck Road and inspected the outside electrical elements, but as the appeals court said in its 20-page opinion, there is evidence that contradicts him. The evidence is undisputed, however, that Vann never entered the trailer.
There is also evidence, although disputed, that the trailer didn’t have smoke detectors, the court said.
Vann signed off on the document that gave Georgia Power permission to reconnect electrical service at the trailer. Holt and Borror moved in soon afterward and died less than a month later.
The city’s attorneys were unsuccessful in trying to convince the court that Vann’s actions were protected by a city ordinance that gives inspectors immunity. The ordinance was changed to provide such protection four years after Vann’s alleged inspection, the appeals court said. Only the General Assembly, not a municipality, can grant such immunity, the opinion reads.
The issue that Vann should be protected by sovereign immunity is one a jury must determine, the appeals court ruled.
Georgia Power and one of the owners of the trailer have already settled. The Augusta Commission has approved continuing the litigation to this point.