When people see or hear about a serious fire, the most common first question is “How did it start?” Surprisingly, many construction litigation cases ask a different question. In a recently filed lawsuit arising out of a large apartment building fire that occurred in December 2014, the central question is not the fire’s origin but “How did the fire spread so rapidly?” The lawsuit was filed by the city of Los Angeles against the developer of the project, and the complaint alleges that the developer was negligent in ways that allowed the fire to spread rapidly.
The fire occurred in the Da Vinci apartment complex that was under construction in downtown Los Angeles. Erection of wood framing was underway when the fire started; the flames gutted the entire structure and damaged nearby city buildings. Surveillance video captured images of a man who was arrested on suspicion of arson. The city is not interested in the arsonist; instead, it is alleging that the developer and the construction manager were negligent because they failed to include proper fire protection measures, failed to have a fire protection plan and failed to maintain security measures that would have prevented the arsonist from entering the property.
Modern construction methods routinely include standard techniques intended to halt or limit the spread of fire. Such measures include the use of flame resistant barriers, such as sheet rock of a minimum thickness, adequate detection and sprinkler systems and fire-resistant doors. In essence, the city is alleging that such measures are standard building practices and that the developer failed to incorporate them into the apartment structure.
A fire that spreads rapidly and outpaces the efforts of fire fighters to extinguish it can be a sign of defective building plans or construction techniques. From this perspective, fire litigation is simply another form of construction litigation in which the actions of the developer or the architect or the construction manager will be judged to determine if any of them failed to follow the industry standard of care. An experienced construction law attorney can offer useful advice about the facts of the case, the need for expert evaluation and testimony and the potential for obtaining a favorable outcome.
Source: Orange County Register, “Los Angeles sues Da Vinci Apartment developer for $20 million due to fire damage,” Associated Press, Feb. 18, 2016