Who Pays For Lives Lost in Recent NYC Apartment Building Fires?

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Noted New York Building Accident Lawyer Richard Gurfein Singles Out No One, Yet.

Two apartment building fires in New York City on the same weekend; seven people killed, including four young children and one child in critical condition; authorities trying to place blame for one of the fires on a 10-year-old boy who they claim was playing with matches; plus claims that fire detectors had been deliberately disabled by tenants of the buildings. Who's to blame?

According to Richard Gurfein, the noted New York City building accident attorney, establishing liability in horrific situations like these usually cannot be determined until after fire investigators, who are trained to gather and interpret data at the scene of a blaze, have completed their investigation.

"Very often, "Gurfein said, " when Gurfein Douglas, my personal injury law firm, is hired to represent a plaintiff in a premises liability matter like an apartment fire, we begin the preparation of the case by gathering all of the earlier claims made by the fire department, or by building inspectors, or the press. Our first step is to hire an expert in building and construction code compliance, and instruct the expert to check if there were any violations against the building at the time of the fire, or if the landlord had failed to maintain smoke detectors, or failed to install or maintain sprinklers, or if emergency fire exits were blocked or locked, or if the landlord did anything else that might have contributed to the blaze.

"Until the facts surrounding the cause of the fire have been confirmed scientifically, and until it has been established what, if any, building code violations had been ignored, determining who is at fault, and the degree of their liability, remains an open question.    

"For this reason," he said, "I advise anyone who has been injured in a building accident to cooperate with the authorities and call a lawyer as soon as possible."

Gurfein explained that in the case of a building fire where people are injured, or killed, as was the case in the recent apartment house fires in Manhattan and in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, the cause of the fire is always important in the eyes of the law.

"If the fire," Gurfein said, "was caused by a defect that should have been spotted and corrected, then the landlord may be at fault. If there was defective wiring in the building that could have caused the blaze in Chelsea, then the fact that that 10-year-old boy might have been playing with matches in his kitchen might have nothing to do with the fire."

Furthermore, when a firefighter is injured on the job, General Municipal Law 205-a provides the special right for the firefighter to file a claim if the injury, or death, is a result of willful neglect or omission by any person, or persons, who failed to comply with any of the statutes, ordinances, rules, orders and requirements of the federal, state, county, village, town or city governments, or of any and all of their departments, divisions and bureaus.

"If the cause of the fire is a landlord's neglect, or worse, as in situations where landlords terrorize tenants by creating unsafe, unlivable conditions to get them out of the building, then a plaintiff has a pretty good case," Gurfein said.

"On the other hand," he added, "while innocent victims of a fire are not responsible for the outcome, anyone who causes a fire can be at least partly responsible for any injuries, or death, or property damage caused by the blaze. We call it 'comparative fault.'

"In New York State," he said, "if a defendant is found to be less than fifty percent at fault, they only pay the percentage assigned by the jury. On the other hand, if the defendant is more than fifty percent at fault, they are liable for one hundred percent of the judgment amount."

Gurfein warned that if the cause of the Chelsea fire can be linked back to the 10-year-old boy only, it could dramatically impact the outcome of any personal injury claim that might arise out of this incident.

"The way the law reads in New York State," he pointed out, "infants under the age of four years old are "non sui juris," which means they are incapable of fault or negligence. On the other hand, a 10-year-old can be held accountable for his, or her, own actions."


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