Wiring negligence suit reaches appeals court

Metal scraps and pieces of the trailer are all that remain at 3946 Buck Road in Augusta. A lawsuit claims that chief electrical inspector Lewis Vann was negligent when reviewing the home.

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 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 following guidelines from the city when he approved the connection of electrical service to the mobile home three weeks before the deadly fire. The 2006 blaze killed Ryan Holt, 19, and Michelle Borror, 20, in the home they shared on Buck Road.

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.

How the Appeals Court decides will determine whether Holt and Borror's families can sue Vann. They have already reached settlements with Georgia Power Co. and one of two landlords who owned the 37-year-old trailer.

The city has spent more than $500,000 on lawyers fighting to protect Vann. Although the city wasn't named as a defendant in the lawsuits, it is representing Vann. If Vann is found liable by a jury, any judgment would be paid by the city.

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 that the city never produced written instructions on how to perform such inspections, leaving it to the judgment of the inspectors.

The families' attorney, Joe Neal Jr., argued that witnesses testified there were written guidelines that city inspectors followed. 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 whether it had the required smoke detectors.

The judges didn't announce which way they were leaning. They will issue a ruling in three to six months.

Families seek trial in deaths