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Appeals court rules against Augusta in fatal fire suit

Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 11:40 AM
Last updated Friday, Dec. 2, 2011 1:29 AM
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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.

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An appeals court ruled against the city of Augusta in a civil lawsuit filed in connection with the 2006 fire deaths of a young couple who lived on Buck Road.  FILE/STAFF
FILE/STAFF
An appeals court ruled against the city of Augusta in a civil lawsuit filed in connection with the 2006 fire deaths of a young couple who lived on Buck Road.


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.

Comments (15) Add comment
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Little Lamb
47950
Points
Little Lamb 12/01/11 - 01:26 pm
0
0
This is an atrocious ruling.

This is an atrocious ruling.

faithson
5447
Points
faithson 12/01/11 - 01:46 pm
0
0
not for all the attorney's

not for all the attorney's involved..

Bruno
780
Points
Bruno 12/01/11 - 01:47 pm
0
0
Why do you say that LL? It

Why do you say that LL? It appears to me that the appeals court got it right in ruling against the city.

dickworth1
954
Points
dickworth1 12/01/11 - 01:54 pm
0
0
Maybe the city has been ill
Unpublished

Maybe the city has been ill advised, but I am sure the commissioners
will spend another half million dollars to appeal this decision.

Insider Information
4009
Points
Insider Information 12/01/11 - 02:09 pm
0
0
This is $500,000 in legal

This is $500,000 in legal costs to date and yet there hasn't even been a trial.

Add the legal costs of a trial plus the cost of a judgment if the city loses, and how much is it going to cost us?

Actually, how many jobs will it cost us when jobs are cut to pay for this?

Little Lamb
47950
Points
Little Lamb 12/01/11 - 02:12 pm
0
0
Why, you ask, Bruno? Because

Why, you ask, Bruno? Because when a city building inspector comes and inspects something and signs off on it, there is no guarantee or warranty (actual or implied) that the work is actually of good quality. And in the case of the fire, there was no actual proof that the short circuit was caused by the inspector's sign-off.

Little Lamb
47950
Points
Little Lamb 12/01/11 - 02:16 pm
0
0
By the way, you know that

By the way, you know that this is Jerry Brigham's second time to be a county commissioner. He served for two terms several years ago then had to leave because of term limits. When he was serving that first time several years ago, I complained to him about the county's bringing lawsuit against the EPD and about the county's relentless appeals of lawsuits that it loses (whether plaintiff or defendant). Brigham defended the county's actions with this statement, “We budget for lawsuits.” I kid you not. With thought processes like that, Augusta's taxpayers are doomed.

Bruno
780
Points
Bruno 12/01/11 - 02:17 pm
0
0
A building code, or building

A building code, or building control, is a set of rules that specify the minimum acceptable level of safety for constructed objects such as buildings and nonbuilding structures. The main purpose of building codes are to protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures. Signing off on the inspection is verification that the building is safe and up to code.

InChristLove
22481
Points
InChristLove 12/01/11 - 03:04 pm
0
0
"Because when a city building

"Because when a city building inspector comes and inspects something and signs off on it, there is no guarantee or warranty (actual or implied) that the work is actually of good quality"

Then why the need to inspect it at all?

InChristLove
22481
Points
InChristLove 12/01/11 - 03:28 pm
0
0
Interesting....in another

Interesting....in another article it appears Mr. Vann was filling in for the usual inspector. The lawyer for the family started that witnesses testified there were written guidelines that city inspectors follow, but the lawyer for Mr. Vann stated the city never produced written instructions.. Could this have been a case of being misinformed because it was not the normal inspector. The city code requires full electrical inspections for mobile homes that have been vacant more than 180 days, which was in this case. If the inspector had went inside the home, he could have checked to see if their were smoke detectors and possibly seen that a kitchen light (which evidently was the cause of the fire) was not connected properly.

Insider Information
4009
Points
Insider Information 12/01/11 - 03:58 pm
0
0
LL, unless I'm missing

LL, unless I'm missing something, the ruling was not on the merits of the case - whether the city did anything wrong or not. According to the article, the ruling simply means that the city may be sued and that the lawsuit can continue.

TK3
562
Points
TK3 12/01/11 - 06:37 pm
0
0
Mobile homes are not stick

Mobile homes are not stick built houses on wheels subject to local and standard building codes but are under Federal regulations and construction standards and the mobile home construction/interiors are not subject to standard local building codes with the exception of some "outside-exterior hookups, support-ties and additions.

Even if invited inside, the local government inspector had NO code authority or legal obligation to inspect its construction. A Federally approved (HUD) (govt' or private) inspector needed to check the home for construction defects/damage using Federal MH construction standards.

Nothing stopping owners/renters of MH's from having tradesmen, firemen or private code certified inspectors do "safety" checks.

gtownm
2
Points
gtownm 12/01/11 - 07:31 pm
0
0
You people have actually no

You people have actually no idea of the FACTS of this case, as neither do I.
Heck ..I don't need to.
Sovereign immunity is nearly impossible to get around, as anyone that has been involved with a case concerning a govt/municipality already knows. The simple fact that a local judge (Brown) disagreed with the city's arguement for a summary judgement based on immunity speaks VOLUMES attesting to that fact that we...the readers....are clueless to the FACTS of this case!
Then....enter the 11th Circuit court of Appeals BACKING THE LOWER COURT!! Jesus...what does it take to convince us that sitting on the sidelines does NOT give us the exposure that we need to the facts to make a rational decision??

Willow Bailey
20603
Points
Willow Bailey 12/01/11 - 11:45 pm
0
0
Cities and counties get sued

Cities and counties get sued all of the time regarding signing off on building inspections where there are later injuries, losses and fatalities. Many are settled out of court.

Willow Bailey
20603
Points
Willow Bailey 12/01/11 - 11:48 pm
0
0
Agreed ICL. Unless it's a

Agreed ICL. Unless it's a matter of revenue collection. Sounds as if the city needs a disclosure if there is no implied safety check.

Iwannakno
1533
Points
Iwannakno 12/02/11 - 06:28 am
0
0
Government at work
Unpublished

Government at work again...sounds about right. I would hire an outside contractor if I wanted a real inspection. I think most "city" inspections are nothing more than a way to make revenue.

Craig Spinks
817
Points
Craig Spinks 12/03/11 - 01:38 am
0
0
One half-million dollars in

One half-million dollars in legal fees to Hamilton, the ShepardPlunkett firm, and unnamed others so far in this case. Over $600K last year from the RCBOE to the Fletcher firm for legal fees. Methinks these may constitute the tip of a full-employment-for-local-attorneys, taxpayer-financed iceberg.

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