Ga. fire department, fire officers sued over fatal senior home fire

The suit claims the officers did not follow primary search procedures, call for additional help and cut the sprinkler system too soon

By Abbigail Lennon
The Augusta Chronicle

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. — Columbia County and several fire and rescue employees have been named in a $15 million wrongful death lawsuit from the fatal fire at Marshall Square retirement community last year.

The suit was filed Thursday by Barbara Ellington, the last surviving daughter of Dorothy Carpenter, the lone resident who perished in the fire.

Ellington's lawsuit is the first to claim negligence by Columbia County as well as individual employees, including the county's fire marshal Brian Clark, battalion chief Jimmie Paschal, Special operations chief Danny Kuhlmann, Capt. Gary Griffith and Lt. Jamie Champion.

Other defendants named in the suit are the retirement community's parent company Resorts Lifestyle Communities Inc.; facility builder Cameron General Contractors Inc.; Goodman Co. LP; as well as property manager Chris Bryde and night concierge Zackery Freehof.

The suit makes several claims of negligence against Bryde and Freehof, including allegations that Carpenter was placed on a third floor apartment though it was known by the staff that the 91-year-old woman had "certain physical and mental limitations," and could not self-evacuate.

The suit also addresses the controversial "Shelter in Place" policy given to the residents, in addition to concerns raised to the facility's operators by Paul Bilodeau, whose mother was a resident, that the policy was unsafe.

The suit alleges that had Bryde been truthful with informing Clark about some residents' inabilities to self-evacuate, additional safety requirements would have been imposed to ensure their safety. Additionally, the suit claims Freehof and Bryde failed to notify the fire department 17 minutes after the fire started in the billiard room on the third floor, that they also silenced the alarm five times and told residents to stay in their rooms, "as they downplayed and minimized the danger of the fire that was rapidly spreading throughout Marshall Square complex."

Several allegations are made against Clark in that a certificate of occupancy should have never been issued in 2014 when the facility opened, alleging that five violations of the fire code were discovered and left unchecked inside the facility six months before the fire occurred June 2, 2015.

The lawsuit also alleges negligence on the parts of Kuhlmann, Griffith, Paschal and Champion the night of the fire, claiming that proper guidelines for primary searches, evacuations and other policies were not followed, including failure to call for additional resources.

Kuhlmann and Bryde turned off the facility's sprinkler system less than an hour after it began and "negligently assumed the fire was not serious and was under control," the lawsuit states.

A descriptive outline of what happened to Carpenter is also included in the filing. It states that she waited for an announcement over the intercom in her apartment, unaware that "the intercom system at the Marshall Square facility was not even capable of carrying voice announcements, only music."

The suit calls Carpenter's death "negligent homicide," and that she "suffered unimaginable physical and mental pain and suffering, disfigurement and ultimately death by fire."

Ellington's lawsuit states it is related to two other suits filed by former residents Rheda Cadle and Charles and Margaret Moye, which are still pending in Columbia County Superior Court.

The filing is one of a long line of negligence suits after the fire, which was ruled accidental in March by Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner Ralph Hudgens. The blaze originated near an air-conditioning unit in a third-floor billiard room inside the $27 million complex.

After the fire, several firefighters including Champion were praised for their work in responding to it, including finding another resident, Cadle, huddled in her bathroom under wet towels some seven hours after she was unaccounted for and believed to be dead.

A Columbia County spokeswoman would not comment on the lawsuit Thursday.


(c)2016 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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