Oakland not liable for San Pablo Avenue fire

Oakland not liable for San Pablo Avenue fire

In a major legal victory for Oakland, a judge has ruled the city is protected from liability in a civil lawsuit over the deadly San Pablo Avenue halfway house blaze, in which four people died.

Alameda Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman in a decision last month agreed with Oakland’s argument that the city and its workers are immune from liability because fire inspectors had visited the building three days before the March 27, 2017 blaze.

Despite fire officials knowing of hazards at the building for months, Seligman said the fire inspection satisfies a broad government code that offers immunity to government workers who inspect properties, even if they occur days before injury is caused.

Surviving tenants and families of victims who lived at 2551 San Pablo Ave. originally filed suit in April 2017 against building owner Keith Kim and a nonprofit agency that provided services there. The city was added to the list of defendants in February. Bobby Thompson, an attorney for the victims, has called the inspection “too little, too late.”

Problems and fire hazards had been reported up the chain by firefighters visiting  the building long before the deadly blaze broke out in the early morning hours that Monday. Between 2012 and 2017, fire and police dispatchers received 500 calls to respond to the building, according to records. In 2015, a firefighter called to the halfway house flagged dangerous conditions in the fire department’s inspection database, according to city records. The referral, however, did not alert inspectors in the Fire Prevention Bureau.

Beginning in January 2017, a fire captain notified department commanders of life safety issues and recommended shutting down the building immediately. On Friday, March 24, three days before the blaze, fire inspectors found several hazards and notified the building owners but it wasn’t red tagged or put under “fire watch,” another available option.

Seligman called the inaction prior to 2017 “disturbing.” But he noted, “this conduct cannot be described as unrelated to the later inspection. “Unlike the Ghost Ship case, where there was no inspection and the City was clearly on notice of the unsafe conditions from non-inspection activities, here there undeniably was an inspection and it addressed the same types of matters as the earlier incidents. The City’s failure to act promptly on the inspection, such as by immediately closing down the (property), is protected by the inspection immunity.”

Oakland remains a defendant in a civil lawsuit over the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, in which 36 people died at a dance party on Dec. 2, 2016. Seligman had earlier ruled Oakland had a “mandatory duty” to ensure safety at the Fruitvale district warehouse.

Check back for updates.

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