Two men are dead following a fire that engulfed most of Midtown Park Apartments in Columbus on July 31st, just before midnight. The two victims, Donald Lechowicz and Herman McCikens, ages 42 and 65 respectively, were immediate neighbors living in adjoining apartments.
Of the building’s 31 units, the fire affected all but one, displacing a further 27 residents and, of course, destroying valuable and priceless personal property. No other tenants were physically hurt, but two firefighters sustained injuries while fighting the blaze. One couple reports that they have been unable to locate their cat, and that other pets have already been found dead in the wreckage.
The ignition source has not yet been identified, but an investigation is ongoing.
Too Often, the Blame for Fire Losses Is Deflected onto Residents
However, amid the outpouring of support and sympathy, the attitude persists that this kind of tragedy is unavoidable, or worse, the sole responsibility of residents prevent or prepare for. WTVM, for example, chose to refer to the fire as “a reminder to get renter’s insurance,” rather than, perhaps, “a reminder for landlords to check and update their buildings’ fire safety compliance.”
Property management companies typically encourage this line of thinking, because it diverts unwanted attention away from themselves.
As usual, the reminder of a landlord’s duties in this case may have to be delivered in court.
Landlords Have a Responsibility to Protect Residents from Fire Risks
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) warns of five primary causes of residential structure fires:
- Cooking accidents
- Heating malfunctions
- Electrical malfunctions
- Smoking accidents
- Candle accidents
Two out of three of these risks are entirely under the landlord’s control. When accessing a building’s electrical or heating systems, a tenant has no option but to hope and trust that the hardware has been properly installed and maintained. It’s also possible for landlord-provided cooking equipment to be dangerously faulty.
Even when the cause of ignition is an error on a tenant’s part, such as dropping a candle or cigarette, or throwing water on a stovetop grease fire, a landlord is still responsible for a range of precautions intended to minimize the damage and danger once a fire begins.
Well-serviced and accessible fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, emergency lighting, clear exit routes, and fire-retardant building materials can make the difference between damage to a single unit and multiple fatalities throughout the building.
Though the exact circumstances of the Midtown Park fire are not yet understood, the owners of the building had a responsibility to take all reasonable steps to address predictable hazards. If the damage was caused or worsened by a failure to do this, then the owners are liable for that damage, potentially including the wrongful deaths of Mr. Lechowicz and Mr. McCikens. If the issue was faulty equipment, such as a space heater or stove, the manufacturer or installer may also share liability.
If you or someone you love have fallen victim to poor fire safety in an apartment complex, The Stoddard Firm can help.