Families Sue Building Owners for Fire Deaths

The families of three young women killed in a fire at the Willows of Coventry apartment complex in Fort Wayne, Indiana on January 23, 2009, are now suing the owners of the property, alleging they failed to provide a reasonably safe place to live. The three women, Lara Punches, Jennifer Spurgeon and Renea Patton, were students at International Business College.

Named as defendants in the suit were Dial Equities, the owner of the Willows at the time of the fire, and Bradford Schools, who operates International Business College. The school, located adjacent to the apartment complex, rented entire apartment buildings from Dial Equities to use as student housing. All residents of the building at the time of the fire were students. Among the specific allegations of negligence are the failure to provide operating smoke detectors in every bedroom and the main living area, the failure to maintain properly functioning and safe electrical outlets, and the failure to provide an evacuation plan.  The suit was filed in Indiana Superior Court, and total damages were not specified. The fire officials say the fire started at or near an electrical outlet.

A key aspect of this case will be the nexus between the school and the property owners. The fire code issues associated with a college dormitory are significantly stricter than they are for a residential apartment building. If the rental arrangements were truly an arms length transaction between Dial Equities and Branford Schools, the duty of Branford to the students would be more difficult to prove. However, if the nexus is indeed less than arms length, the school would be directly in the plaintiffs’ cross hairs.

Here is a video about the lawsuit.

Here is additional information.

Download Willows Complaint. For you legal eagles out there…. notice anything unusual in the list of defendants????

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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