A landlord in Cumberland County is facing criminal charges that could carry up to 30 years prison time for a fatal fire in November that killed six people.
In addition to six counts of manslaughter, the landlord is accused of three misdemeanor code violations for failure to have working smoke detectors, have a second escape from an upstairs bedroom and clear stairwells.
These kind of issues, if proven, would provide a strong basis for the pending premises liability lawsuits, which have been filed by several of the victims’ families.
What is more unusual is the fact that prosecutors are pursuing this case in criminal court. While such actions (or rather inaction) could certainly be considered negligent, a criminal charge of manslaughter requires “gross negligence.” This is what prosecutors are alleging.
Defendant landlord, however, insists he did install smoke detectors as required by law, but those were disabled by residents. He further asserts he in no way caused the fire, which investigators say resulted from a cigarette that was not properly put out. The fire reportedly ignited on the porch, engulfed the front door and blocked the rear staircase. The three people who survived the blaze were forced to jump from a second-story window.
The six people who were killed were all in their 20s.
Conviction on the criminal charges would not necessarily carry mandated prison time, but prosecutors say they will be recommending incarceration.
The pending civil cases, meanwhile, allege defendant landlord (also a real estate broker) and owner of two other local properties in Portland, sought to rent rooms to tenants without first ensuring the properties were safe and up to local fire codes.
While routine inspections are performed by the city every few months on properties with three units or more, city staffers had received complaints about this property (which technically had less than three units). For that reason, officials did conduct an inspection in the months prior to the blaze.
The fact that certain violations were apparently missed resulted in a review that ultimately led to the city founding a fire safety office.
Not only did this unit not have smoke detectors that were functional, it lacked the fire alarm system that was required of properties that provide room rentals. This property was technically a two-family rental. However, because he was renting the property out by individual rooms, he was required to have more safety measures in place, officials said.
When the case went before the grand jury, evidence was presented to indicate tenants could share partial blame. Specifically, there was evidence tenants had disabled the smoke detectors and blocked egresses with certain debris. But even in spite of that, the grand jury chose to indict.
The criminal case and the civil cases will proceed separately but simultaneously. Portland premises liability attorneys know one will not necessarily have an impact on the other, meaning defendant could avoid criminal conviction and still be held civilly liable. However, information gleaned as a result of the criminal investigation could certainly prove useful for plaintiffs in the civil cases.
If you are injured, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.
Portland landlord indicted on six counts of manslaughter, July 11, 2015, By Matt Byrne and David Hench, Portland Press Herald
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