Families of Houston LODDs Sue Building Owners Seeking at Least $4 Million

The families of three of the four Houston firefighters killed at the Southwest Inn fire in 2013 have filed a wrongful death against the building’s owners seeking between $1 and $5 million in damages each.

Nicole Garner, Mary Sullivan, and Sabina Bebee filed suit Monday against Criterium Systems, Inc. doing business as Southwest Inns, Mathurai Harendra, Roger Chen, and Shri Siddhivinayaka LLC. alleging negligence, gross negligence and wrongful death. Houston firefighter Robert Yarbrough and his wife Amy were also Plaintiffs in the suit. Yarborough was severely injured during the rescue effort.

Killed in the May 31, 2013 fire was Robert Gamer, Anne Sullivan, Robert Bebee, and Capatain Matthew Renaud. Captain Renaud’s family had previous filed suit against the defendants as had Captain Bill Dowling, who was severely injured.

City Attorney Donna Edmundson was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying that the city planned to intervene in the lawsuit to recoup its expenses, estimated to be over $2.3 million.

According to the complaint:

On May 31, 2013, Plaintiffs sustained legal injuries and/or lost life because of

  • the active and continuing negligence of the defendants;
  • failure of the defendants to warn of dangerous conditions of which they had actual knowledge and of which Plaintiffs had no knowledge;
  • failure of the defendants to warn of dangerous conditions that they had created and of which Plaintiffs had no knowledge;
  • defendants’ unlawful or unpermitted use of the property where Plaintiffs sustained significant injuries and/or perished;
  • defendants’ flagrant and repeated failure to comply with non-delegable life/safety laws, rules and regulations intended to prevent structural failure and improper storage of highly flammable fuel sources;
  • defendants’ engaging in unpermitted and unlawful operations and uses of the property that created actual dangerous conditions and failing to warn Plaintiffs of same;
  • defendants’ compromising the structural integrity of the building without warning Plaintiffs of same;
  • defendants’ stockpiling fuel sources inside a building that was not permitted or allowed to be used in such a fashion;
  • defendants’ operating ignition sources in an unauthorized manner;
  • defendants’ trespassing upon the permitted uses of the structure that injured Plaintiffs, and which trespass was a cause of Plaintiffs’ damages;
  • defendants’ trespassing upon the lawful or authorized uses of the building and/or negligently advising Plaintiffs after they arrived at the scene to enter the building because of the presence of others which was false or unsupported by the known facts;
  • defendants’ compromising the structure in violation of applicable building and fire codes;
  • defendants’ maintaining and/or installing roof coverings without proper inspections, engineering and/or lawful approval;
  • defendants’ willfully and wantonly placing Plaintiffs’ lives in peril without any warning or correction of dangerous conditions;
  • defendants’ failing to comply with applicable laws and non-delegable duties; and
  • defendants’ inviting Plaintiffs into a dangerous condition after their arrival on the premises.

The complaint also alleges the defendants have engaged in fraudulently conveying assets out of their names to avoid having to pay to Plaintiffs.

  • Plaintiffs have learned of efforts by Chen and Criterium to try to sell the property owned by Criterium in a manner that would remove those assets from attachment or collection efforts. The effort by Chen and Criteriurn, if successful, would constitute a fraudulent conveyance and would be intended to deprive Plaintiffs and likely judgment creditors in this suit of sufficient assets to make them whole.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Garner v Criterium

Here is a copy of Captain Dowling’s complaint: Dowling v Criterium

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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