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Families seek trial in deaths

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

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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.

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Keith Finley, Holt's stepfather and an electrician, said that if Augusta's electrical inspector had done his job, the fire that killed the couple could have been prevented. He said he would like to see the case go to trial so the public can learn what happened.    Corey Perrine/Staff
Corey Perrine/Staff
Keith Finley, Holt's stepfather and an electrician, said that if Augusta's electrical inspector had done his job, the fire that killed the couple could have been prevented. He said he would like to see the case go to trial so the public can learn what happened.

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."

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Cadence
219
Points
Cadence 02/27/11 - 03:46 am
0
0
So Holt was working for an

So Holt was working for an electrician?

WoodyKaminer
2
Points
WoodyKaminer 02/27/11 - 09:10 am
0
0
The city of Augusta will LOSE

The city of Augusta will LOSE this case. I had a rental property in Augusta that sat vacant for more than 6 months. I was told by the city that in order for them to send Ga Power out there to reconnect the power, they had to do an inspection of the property. That included him checking outside the house, and inside, including the panel box. The panel box, (fuse box) can only be viewed from INSIDE the home. Once this inspection is done, and it passes, the inspector faxes a letter to Ga Power and they reconnect power the next day. Call me, I'll testify on your behalf. The city is wrong in this case and they are trying to cover it up.

pointstoponder
161
Points
pointstoponder 02/27/11 - 09:40 am
0
0
"I sincerely hope the city is

"I sincerely hope the city is found negligent and has to pay whatever is due."

The death of these young people is indeed sad, but you do know who pays don't you?

corgimom
31466
Points
corgimom 02/27/11 - 09:56 am
0
0
There is nothing in the

There is nothing in the article to suggest that Mr. Finley saw the trailer before it burnt.

airbud7
1
Points
airbud7 02/27/11 - 10:03 am
0
0
The first thing to do is

The first thing to do is determine the exact cause of the fire.

Little Lamb
45360
Points
Little Lamb 02/27/11 - 10:04 am
0
0
As this article presents the

As this article presents the evidence, the city sure looks bad. There is another article in today's paper where a jury awarded over a million dollars to a woman who sprained her ankle when her heel got caught in a rough sidewalk in Atlanta. So much for jury sympathy for "sovereign immunity."

The one who looks the worst up in the article is Rob Sherman. He sounds very weak when he says the electrical inspection is to look only for junk cars and tall weeds. Sherman and Vann both need demotions with serious salary cuts; and the city needs to stop fighting and instead settle this case. As it is, the plaintiffs will get over $1 million and the lawyers will get another $1 million.

Little Lamb
45360
Points
Little Lamb 02/27/11 - 10:07 am
0
0
Sandy Hodson wrote: In sworn

Sandy Hodson wrote:

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's case is lost.

G'ment Watcher
97
Points
G'ment Watcher 02/27/11 - 12:41 pm
0
0
I agree that the first thing

I agree that the first thing that needs to happen is to find the cause of the fire. If power was restored early in August and the fire did not occur until much later in the month, odds are that there was some indication of a problem with the electrical system if this was the cause. I know that if I thought there was any indication of a problem and had a father in law who was an electrician, I would certainly have called him to check it out. Failing this, why didn't the residents call back for a follow up inspection as Mr. Vann requested? My money would be that it wasn't caused by electical problems or it would have occured earlier!!!!

WW1949
19
Points
WW1949 02/27/11 - 01:41 pm
0
0
I am with you G'ment Watcher.

I am with you G'ment Watcher. I bet they left something on. And why move into a 37 year old trailer. It has to be falling apart. If it was decent it would not have been vacant for 6 months. Why would GA Power settle anything. Thay had a letter to reconnect. In my opinion they are not responsible for anything.

Just My Opinion
5468
Points
Just My Opinion 02/27/11 - 02:11 pm
0
0
corgi, I realize the article

corgi, I realize the article says nothing about the father seeing the trailer before the fire. But I didn't say that. I said that, from what I was told, he had been there prior to the fire. At this point, it doesn't really matter, so there really is no point in me bringing it up. Won't bring anyone back.

WoodyKaminer
2
Points
WoodyKaminer 02/27/11 - 05:31 pm
0
0
G'ment, There was no reason

G'ment, There was no reason to call back to the office to have the power turned on. It had already been turned on. The fact is, the only reason Ga Power has the inspector go to the property BEFORE power is restored, is to do an inspection to make sure it is safe to do so. In this case, he only inspected 1/2 the property, and failed to inspect the inside. He left a letter for them to call back to have the inside inspected, but sent a letter to Ga Power telling them it was ok to turn it on anyway. It also sounds like the inspector never went under the house, because it sounds as though all the wiring in the house was bad. Someones arse should be fired, and the city should be sued for failing to accept responsiblity for their employees. The employee broke policy and that is evident! But dont take my word for it. Simply call Ga Power and tell them you have a house thats been vacant for a year and you want to have power restored. 50 bucks says they will tell you that you have to have it inspected first. At least they did before this accident happened.

Scotty Finley
0
Points
Scotty Finley 02/27/11 - 04:18 pm
0
0
Opinions are like armpits.

Opinions are like armpits. Everybody's got a couple, and they usually don't smell too good. It's not your fault, little bro.

WoodyKaminer
2
Points
WoodyKaminer 02/27/11 - 05:29 pm
0
0
As it is, THE ONLY REASON THE

As it is, THE ONLY REASON THE INSPECTOR COMES OUT IS TO INSPECT THE PROPERTY AND MAKE SURE IT IS SAFE!!! Not sure why thats so hard to understand. He did a halfass inspection and 2 people died because of it. No way around it.

dani
12
Points
dani 02/27/11 - 05:49 pm
0
0
How can you legitimately sue

How can you legitimately sue the taxpayers when the cause of the fire is not even determined.

The poor taxpayers.... who had no part in any of this... gets it coming and going.

david jennings
580
Points
david jennings 02/27/11 - 05:59 pm
0
0
Most people dread seeing an

Most people dread seeing an inspector because it usually cost you money to comply.I have done many jobs where folks want to avoid the inspector only to regret it later.The article didnt convince me who might be at fault,however it is truly sad two young people are gone.

Just My Opinion
5468
Points
Just My Opinion 02/27/11 - 06:18 pm
0
0
ScottyFinley, nobody is

ScottyFinley, nobody is saying it's Keith's fault..nowhere near it. But it is a sad irony that he is an electrician and the fire may have been caused because of it. And david jennings, I just can't understand how you couldn't find the city at fault here. Finley's own work to tape conversations with 4 city electrical inspectors puts the matter in black and white...no gray area to interpret.

corgimom
31466
Points
corgimom 02/27/11 - 06:44 pm
0
0
"So now it is the fault of

"So now it is the fault of the government for not making sure that YOUR home is safe when it isn't even possible to determine the cause of the fire. If it were an immediate threat, the fire would have occurred when the power was restored, not weeks later."

That is absolutely not true. That's why inspections are needed.

alittlebird
0
Points
alittlebird 02/27/11 - 06:55 pm
0
0
The cause of the fire is

The cause of the fire is immaterial. The article clearly states that the inspector was supposed to check for smoke detectors. Obviously, there were NONE or these young people would have been alerted and had time to make it out alive.
This is just another example of government ineptness. The taxpayers pay these inspectors to do a safety inspection to insure the health and well-being of the taxpayer, the inspector is too lazy to do his job, and as a result these two young kids burned to death.
The fact that the home was 37 years old just makes it all the more horrifying that the inspector was too lazy to do his job before letting these teens move in. (Not everybody can afford to live in a home less than 37 years old.) To say otherwise suggests that we take care of the wealthy, but ignore the poor and young!

dani
12
Points
dani 02/27/11 - 07:08 pm
0
0
The cause of the fire is very

The cause of the fire is very important. The inspector could be charged with neglect, but until it is proven that his neglect caused the fire, well that is just plain unfair. No suit should be instituted until the cause is determined so that blame can be placed where it actually belongs.
I don't see a law suit against the inspector, so why not? Because his guilt can't be proven, right? ...am I missing something?

alittlebird
0
Points
alittlebird 02/27/11 - 07:28 pm
0
0
" am I missing

" am I missing something?"
Obviously. Neglect could not be more clear. The inspector NEGLECTED to go into the house to determine if there were smoke detectors. And directly due to this neglect these young people were NOT alerted and as a result, lost their lives.
This "inspector" should be fired for failing to due his job. And then turning around and then letting GA. Power connect power.
I hate to think what I would do if it was my son or daughter.....

david jennings
580
Points
david jennings 02/27/11 - 08:33 pm
0
0
Just my opinion,please read

Just my opinion,please read my post agaiin,I said the article didnt convince me WHO was at fault.Im not clear on what caused the tragedy.I think there is some grey area here.

Willow Bailey
20580
Points
Willow Bailey 02/27/11 - 08:43 pm
0
0
If the fire was caused by an

If the fire was caused by an electrical problem, and if the city has an inspection policy prior to turning on the power, and did not inspect as per their own policy, they are sunk; and rightfully so.

Condolences to the family's of this couple.

TK3
562
Points
TK3 02/27/11 - 09:31 pm
0
0
I feel for the family but I

I feel for the family but I believe the law does not favor them in this case. Except for contract disputes, only Federal approved plant inspectors and and handful of Independent Code Certified Inspectors are qualified by Federal Court (like myself but now retired) in MH inspection cases. MH Inspections are for CFR/HUD Federal guidelines and Federal Courts have jurisdiction.

Again, Federal Law-CFR-HUD governs all Mobile Home construction, NOT local or State adopted Building Codes. Local Inspectors have jurisdiction over MH site via Zoning Codes (pushed by COG and often used to discriminate) and attachment or anchoring of MH to site (HUD specs rule) and in some areas COG has pushed local governments to get many Power Companies to agree to cease their own inspections of electrical hookups (they saved bucks and dumped responsibility) and allow power to be turned on only via approval of local government' Inspector. Note that the "Electrical hookup" is for Electrical Code and ends at the exterior box connection for MH as locals lack proper legal authority to inspect the interior of a MH, unlike with a stick built home (they can however inspect any stick built attachment). The government hired attorney has wasted enough taxpayer funds as any ParaLegal could find what they need in the CFR. The Building Official needs to make sure his so called "Inspectors" stop running their mouth off and actually read and stick to code.

PS: If the Electric hookup was wrong at the box the breakers should-have cut in unless they were defective but that would likely mean the interior box breakers were also defective or the MH had interior wring changed or damaged since last time power was on.
PSS: If the MH was made in the 70s it may well have had aluminum wiring that escaped the Feds recall notices. Of course all circuits can be overloaded. Always check your smoke detector.

Just My Opinion
5468
Points
Just My Opinion 02/27/11 - 09:48 pm
0
0
david jennings...your

david jennings...your clarification is duly noted.

dani
12
Points
dani 02/27/11 - 09:57 pm
0
0
They don't EVEN know if it

They don't EVEN know if it was an electrical fire. sheesh!

airbud7
1
Points
airbud7 02/27/11 - 10:00 pm
0
0
I've never seen a county

I've never seen a county inspector use a ohm meter on every circuit in a house That I've had power turned on at...Has anyone?

WoodyKaminer
2
Points
WoodyKaminer 02/27/11 - 10:50 pm
0
0
TK3, You obviously have

TK3, You obviously have experience with electricity. However, you seem to lack the knowledge of Augusta Richmond County inspection protocol. If the power has been out for more than 180 consecutive days, Ga Power REQUIRES an external AND internal inspection of the subject property. If an inspector were to only examine the exterior box of a home and approve it for power, what would happen if someone had broken in to that home and stolen the interior panel box? Someone would get hurt when the power was turned on. I had several rentals in ARC that had to be inspected, and the inspector checked in and out. The fact that he only checked outside and left a note for them to call back for an inspection of the inside, proves my point. The question that should be asked of the inspector is why did he approve the power to be turned on if he told the people to call back for another inspection? This may clarify a lot.

WW1949
19
Points
WW1949 02/28/11 - 12:51 am
0
0
Alittlebird I chek my own

Alittlebird I chek my own smoke detectors and do not depend on someone else to do it for me. To ask the government to do everything for you is just not right. I still believe something else was wrong and caused the fire. We may never know and i am sorry the two lost their lives. Do not blame only the inspector.

TK3
562
Points
TK3 02/28/11 - 10:13 am
0
0
Dear WoodyKaminer; Sorry but

Dear WoodyKaminer;
Sorry but local Ordinances/Codes/protocols and State Codes/laws have NO force of law in such MH cases. Yes local government Inspectors can-be INVITED, repeat, INVITED inside by OWNERS of a Mobile Home built under Federal Regulations (if they are on site) to do a non-intrusive visible "safety Inspection" if local Ordinances/Codes and Building Official or Fire Chief allows inspectors to do so and offer recommendations but those recommendations have NO force of law in themselves and it would be up to the owner to follow up on any "safety" recommendations or seek legal council. In cases where a MH owner has such recommendations or suspects construction problems they can also have a independent qualified Inspector make a report for use of legal council in Federal Court.

Please note Power Companies do NOT have the power of law and they have only made a pact (under pressure) with (many) local governments to NOT sell electrical power to anyone unless local government' Inspector approves. The 180 day reconnect rule is yet another local government induced rule and in regards to such requiring any inside inspections of a MH, would have NO force of law in court.

"you seem to lack the knowledge of Augusta Richmond County inspection protocol. If the power has been out for more than 180 consecutive days, Ga Power REQUIRES an external AND internal inspection of the subject property."

TK3
562
Points
TK3 02/28/11 - 10:20 am
0
0
Dear WoodyKaminer; Sorry but

Dear WoodyKaminer;
Sorry but local Ordinances/Codes/protocols and State Codes/laws have NO force of law in such MH cases. Yes local government Inspectors can-be INVITED, repeat, INVITED inside by OWNERS of a Mobile Home built under Federal Regulations (if they are on site) to do a non-intrusive visible "safety Inspection" if local Ordinances/Codes and Building Official or Fire Chief allows inspectors to do so and offer recommendations but those recommendations have NO force of law in themselves and it would be up to the owner to follow up on any "safety" recommendations or seek legal council. In cases where a MH owner has such recommendations or suspects construction problems they can also have a independent qualified Inspector make a report for use of legal council in Federal Court.

Please note Power Companies do NOT have the power of law and they have only made a pact (under pressure) with (many) local governments to NOT sell electrical power to anyone unless local government' Inspector approves. The 180 day reconnect rule is yet another local government induced rule and in regards to such requiring any inside inspections of a MH, would have NO force of law in court.

"you seem to lack the knowledge of Augusta Richmond County inspection protocol. If the power has been out for more than 180 consecutive days, Ga Power REQUIRES an external AND internal inspection of the subject property."

PS: Tags/notices left on site by government inspectors are pre-printed for limited but various uses and one may be used/left to just indicate Inspector had-been on site.

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