Connecticut Supreme Court Holds the Failure to Conduct Required Fire Inspections Could Be Reckless Warranting a Jury Trial

In a 5 to 1 decision handed down today, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a wrongful death suit against the Bridgeport Fire Department should proceed to trial because the city’s failure to meet its obligation to inspect buildings may constitute recklessness. The case arose out of the November 13, 2009 fire in the PT Barnum Apartments that claimed the lives of Tiana Black, 22, and her three children, Ny-shon Williams, 5, and 4-year-old twins, Nyaisja and Tyaisja William.

The suit named the Bridgeport Fire Department and five Bridgeport city officials: Fire Chief Brian Rooney, Fire Marshal William Cosgrove, Mayor William Finch, Zoning Administrator Dennis Buckley, and Building Official Peter Paajanen. Several non-municipal defendants were also named, but they were not involved in today’s ruling. The suit attributed the deaths to the city’s failure to conduct annual inspections mandated by state law.

The city sought to have the case decided by summary judgment based on Connecticut General Statutes §52-557, which provides immunity protection to municipalities and municipal officials who fail to adequately conduct an inspection. They argued that immunity, coupled with the fact that Black had a blood alcohol level of .23 which “would likely have impaired her ability to respond appropriately to the initial alarm and to the fire itself,” warranted a summary judgment in their favor.

The plaintiff argued that the city’s blatant failure to meet its statutory inspection obligations in light of the history of fatal fires in the city, amounted to recklessness, which is an exception to the immunity otherwise provided by §52-557. Recklessness requires the conscious disregarding of a known and substantial risk of harm.

The city countered that the recklessness argument could only apply if fire officials had been aware of a dangerous condition at the PT Barnum Apartments, and recklessly disregarded that specific risk. They contended there was no proof the fire department was aware of code violations at the apartment building, and therefore §52-557 made the fire department immune.

The trial court ruled in favor of the city finding that §52-557 immunized the fire department’s failure to conduct the inspections. The Court of Appeals reversed based on the recklessness exception, and the case ended up at the Connecticut Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed in principle with the Court of Appeal, but modified some of the finer details.

In the Supreme Court’s own words:

  • The plaintiff alleged, among other things, that the decedents died as a result of the municipal defendants’ negligent failure to inspect the smoke detection equipment in their apartment unit for compliance with applicable fire safety codes and regulations.
  • Pursuant to General Statutes §29-305 (b),4 the Bridgeport fire marshal’s office is required to conduct annual inspections of all multifamily residential units within Bridgeport.
  • It is undisputed that the neither the municipal defendants nor their employees conducted the mandatory inspection of unit 205 in the year prior to November 13, 2009.
  • [I]n the early morning of Friday, November 13, a fire broke out in the kitchen of unit 205.
  • The fire department arrived on the scene at 1:02 a.m. Firefighters extinguished the fire, gained entry to unit 205, and located and attempted to resuscitate the four decedents, each of whom subsequently was pronounced dead at an area hospital.
  • The medical examiner concluded that all four had died of smoke inhalation.
  • In addition, Black’s blood alcohol level was found to be 0.23 percent.
  • Fire department investigators specifically linked the fire to ‘‘carelessness,’’ opining that ‘‘Black’s blood alcohol content would likely have impaired her ability to respond appropriately to the initial alarm and to the fire itself.’’
  • The plaintiff commenced the present action against the defendants. In her revised complaint, the plaintiff alleged, among other things, that the municipal defendants failed to ensure that unit 205 complied with state building and fire safety codes, failed to remedy numerous defects in unit 205, and failed to conduct an annual fire safety inspection of unit 205 as required by §29-305.
  • The plaintiff specifically alleged that the municipal defendants knew or should have known about and remedied a number of asserted defects in unit 205, including the absence of fire escapes or other adequate means of egress, photoelectric smoke detectors, fire alarm systems, fire suppression systems, fire sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and fire safety or prevention plans. She alleged that such conduct on the part of the municipal defendants was both negligent and reckless.
  • ‘‘[A] political subdivision of the state or any employee, officer or agent acting within the scope of his employment or official duties shall not be liable for damages to person or property resulting from . . . failure to make an inspection or making an inadequate or negligent inspection of any property . . . to determine whether the property complies with or violates any law or contains a hazard to health or safety, unless the political subdivision had notice of such a violation of law or such a hazard or unless such failure to inspect or such inadequate or negligent inspection constitutes a reckless disregard for health or safety under all the relevant circumstances. . . .’
  • [T]he plaintiff argued… that the municipal defendants’ failure to conduct any inspection of unit 205, in alleged violation of § 29-305, constituted the negligent breach of a ministerial duty and, therefore, was not subject to immunity under § 52-557n (a) (2)(B).
  • The plaintiff further contended that the municipal defendants were not entitled to immunity under § 52-557n (b) (8) because both of the exceptions contained in that subdivision allegedly applied to their conduct: (1) they were aware of various code violations at unit 205; and (2) their failure to conduct any inspections constituted a reckless disregard for health or safety.
  • In support of these contentions, however, the plaintiff submitted only the affidavit of Mark Tebbets, an expert on the state building code. Tebbets opined that (1) unit 205 had not been compliant with applicable building and fire safety codes mandating the interconnection of smoke alarms6 and the size of window openings, (2) the fire department failed to conduct the required annual inspection of unit 205 to identify those violations, and (3) those undetected violations were causally related to the deaths of the decedents insofar as interconnection of the alarms would have provided earlier notice of the smoke and fire conditions in unit 205 and proper window openings would have facilitated escape from the fire.
  • The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the municipal defendants. With respect to their alleged failure to inspect unit 205, the court found that the plaintiff had failed to establish that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to either the notice exception or the reckless disregard exception in § 52-557n (b) (8).
  • As to recklessness, the trial court characterized the law as follows: ‘‘In the context of inspections, courts seem to agree that knowledge of a dangerous condition is necessary to show the type of reckless conduct necessary to defeat immunity pursuant to § 52-557n (b) (8).’’
  • During the course of [deposing Bridgeport Fire Chief Brian Rooney, Chief] Rooney made numerous statements that, while not indicating any knowledge or awareness of specific code violations or safety hazards at unit 205 prior to the fire, arguably created questions of fact as to whether the municipal defendants demonstrated reckless disregard for the health or safety of the citizens of Bridgeport. For example, Rooney testified that:
    • Bridgeport employs only ten fire inspectors, a number that is insufficient to inspect each of the 4000 to 5000 multifamily homes located there.
    • Although Rooney requested additional fire inspectors in his 2013 budget, he had not requested additional inspectors in past years’ budgets.
    • Rooney previously had been named as a defendant in a lawsuit arising from a 2005 fire at a three-family residence located on Iranistan Avenue in which a mother and her two children lost their lives. The plaintiffs in that action alleged that the fire department had failed to inspect the property, as required by statute, and thus had failed to identify the fact that there were no smoke alarms present.
    • Prior to that 2005 fire, Bridgeport’s fire inspectors ‘‘weren’t doing the [mandatory] inspections annually on [Bridgeport’s more than 3000 three-family homes] unless there was a complaint.’’ Rooney conceded: ‘‘I don’t know what they were doing.’’ Subsequently, in late 2007 and early 2008, all but one of Bridgeport’s inspectors were fired for failing to carry out their inspection duties.
    • In 2007 or 2008, Rooney spoke with then Fire Marshal Bruce Collins about the inspection procedure for public housing facilities in Bridgeport. Collins informed him that those facilities carried out their own inspections and, therefore, that the fire marshal’s office within the fire department did not inspect them unless there was a complaint.
    • Rooney explained that ‘‘[w]e didn’t have the resources to do it when we knew that the housing authority was doing it.’’ Rooney conceded, however, that the housing authority’s internal inspections were not being conducted by a certified fire marshal—who must pass an examination and study code enforcement at the state fire marshal school—as required by law, and he did not know specifically what the internal inspections entailed.
  • The municipal defendants note that, under both our common law and our Penal Code, conduct is reckless only if it involves the disregard of a substantial risk or high probability of danger that is either known or so obvious that it should be known.
  • [Plaintiff] contends that, especially in light of the fact that the fire department’s noninspection policy was alleged to have contributed to multiple deaths in the 2005 Iranistan Avenue fire, the trial court should have left to the jury the question of whether the fire department’s ongoing failure to conduct any annual inspections of unit 205 constituted a reckless disregard of public health or safety.
  • When the proper standard is applied, we agree… that the plaintiff has created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the municipal defendants, in failing to inspect unit 205, exhibited a reckless disregard for public health or safety under all the relevant circumstances and, therefore, that the trial court should not have granted summary judgment on that issue.
  • [W]e have defined recklessness simply as disregarding a high degree or substantial risk of danger, leaving open the question whether it may be reckless to engage in conduct that carries a relatively low likelihood of causing momentous harm.
  • There is little doubt that it might be reckless if federal regulators adopted a policy of not conducting safety inspections at nuclear power plants or airlines of their passenger planes, not-withstanding the relatively low probability of a disaster occurring in any particular instance.
  • We see no reason why the same principles should not apply to a fire department’s failure to carry out fire safety inspections at multifamily apartment buildings, especially ones such as the one occupied by the decedents, where limited means of egress increase the likelihood that any particular fire will result in casualties.
  • We also agree with the plaintiff that, particularly when a municipality has adopted a policy of not carrying out any inspections of a certain type, § 52-557n (b) (8) permits the finder of fact to assess the aggregate level of risk associated with that policy, and not only the limited risk posed to the specific premises at which the hazard happened to transpire.
  • As we have discussed, the reckless disregard exception applies when a municipality does not have actual notice of a hazard or violation at particular premises. Under those circumstances, it would make little sense to construe the exception to apply only when a municipal actor disregards a particular, premise-specific risk.
  • Moreover, mandated inspections such as fire safety inspections are, by their very nature, standardized procedures that are intended and designed to identify general risks of the sort that may occur rarely but can affect any property of a certain type. If a municipality adopts a policy of not conducting any such inspections, it presumably does so with a view toward the total resources that can be saved thereby.

Here is a copy of the decision: Williams v Housing Authority

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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