PATERSON PERSONAL INJURY LAWYER CASE: FATAL FIRE
An appeals court recently decided a tragic Paterson personal injury lawyer case. Here is what happened.
In 2010, a fire broke out at a Paterson home. The home was owned by a Ms. Brown. Several tenants lived in the house. The fire started in the basement. Electrical panels were improperly wired.
Several months before the fire, the Paterson Fire Department responded to Brown’s home. Smoke was coming from a boiler. While at the home, a City fire inspector discovered improper wiring in the basement. He thus sent a fax to the City’s electrical department. The fax stated that “The wiring at the panels in the Basement is Not Safe.”
Two days later, Mr. Bierals, a City electrical inspector, inspected the electrical panels. He found “open electrical panels.” He also found wiring that was “not up to code.” He called the wiring a “disaster.” Bierals later stated that “whoever did this …should be locked up.”
Bierals thus photographed the wiring of the electrical panels. He informed Brown of the dangerous conditions. The City sent a notice to Brown. The notice required her to remedy the problem. About three months later, the City sent another notice.
About a month after that, Bierals returned to the home. The wiring had not been fixed. Bierals gave Brown an additional two weeks to fix the problem. Bierals wrote in his notes that he had “re-inspected” the home. However, he had not.
Brown failed to contact Bierals after the visit. Bierals contacted Ms. Ragucci. She worked in the City’s Building Department. Bierals testified that Ragucci told him that she would speak with the City official in charge of the construction department. Then she would get back to him.
City Fails to Follow Up.
But Bierals testified that Ragucci never followed up. Bierals also testified that the City had procedures on how to handle “imminent hazards.” The electrical power to the home could be shut off. Department policy required Bierals to notify his direct supervisor, Mr. Del Carmen, of any imminent hazard. Del Carmen would then determine whether to shut off the power.
Bierals, however, never contacted Del Carmen. He had personal issues with Del Carmen in the past.
Eventually, the electrical panels overloaded. A fire broke out. Four residents died in the fire. Other persons were injured.
Several injured people and the survivors of the four deceased sued. The lawsuits blamed various parties for the fire. These included Brown, the City, and the City’s employees.
In 2013, Brown pled guilty to the crime of recklessly causing widespread injury. In short, she admitted that she caused the fire. She failed to make the necessary electrical repairs to her home.
Trial Judge Rules.
The trial judge ruled that all government defendants, except for Bierals, could not be sued. The judge dismissed the victims’ claims against those parties.
Specifically, the judge found that the conduct of the other City employees consisted of failure to enforce the law. Victims could not sue, despite such negligence, because of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA). The TCA law immunizes the government from liability in such cases. (Not very fair, wouldn’t you agree?)
Nonetheless, the judge found that Bierals was protected only by a qualified (partial) immunity. He would only be immune if he acted in good faith. The judge ruled that a jury needed to decide if such good faith existed.
Appeals Court Rules in Paterson Personal Injury Lawyer Case.
Bierals made two arguments. First, that he had absolute immunity. Second, that he wasn’t responsible for the owner’s negligence.
The appeals court noted that the TCA grants absolute immunity to both the City and Bierrals for failure to attempt to enforce the law.
However, the TCA provides only limited immunity when the City or its employees do attempt to enforce the law. Then, the TCA only shields a public employee who acts in good faith.
The victims contended that Bierals acted to enforce the law. And that he didn’t act in good faith.
Specifically, the victims asserted that Bierals knew that the improper wiring in Brown’s home constituted an imminent hazard. Bierrals did act by inspecting the home. Nevertheless, Bierrals failed to act in good faith. He failed to try to shut off the power. Why? Bierals testified that he decided not to deal with Del Carmen. They did not get along.
The appeals judges therefore upheld the trial judge’s ruling. The victims had the right for a jury to decide whether Bierrals acted in good faith.
What about the argument that the City and its workers were not responsible for the owner’s failure to correct the hazards? In short, the judges ruled that law’s qualified immunity accounts for that. Because Bierals acted to enforce the law, he had qualified immunity. He only had to act in good faith. Accordingly, if he can convince the jury of that, he will win.
Respecting this tragic Paterson personal injury lawyer case, I believe that the appeals judges ruled correctly.
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