As Brooklyn fire calms, concerns of legal liability rise from the ashes
A Brooklyn storage facility, which housed the records of a number of city agencies and the New York state court system, was engulfed in flames this past Saturday with Brooklyn firefighters battling the seven-alarm blaze in freezing temperatures. The facility continued to smolder throughout the weekend.
As firefighters work in harsh winter conditions to contain the fire, some are starting to assess the damage and ask questions of responsibility and liability. The fire is the first seven-alarm fire New York has seen in two years.
“The building is a total loss,” FDNY Chief James Leonard said of the Citi Storage facility located at 5 North 11th St.
It is unclear what caused the fire, but it is being said that the massive amounts of paper stored in the building has created smolder and smoke that is being carried across Williamsburg, by the windy winter weather New York has been experiencing.
“The way the wind is coming off the river, it’s creating a heavy smoke,” Leonard said. “Once that paper starts burning, it’s very difficult. [The building] is going to smolder for quite some time.”
Some Brooklyn residents are already complaining about breathing issues due to smoke in the air.
“The smoke’s pretty terrible — we live about three blocks away, and I mean, it’s all through the apartment,” Williamsburg resident Brian Green told a local ABC reporter.
The city Health Department issued an advisory late Saturday warning anyone near the fire or downwind of it to stay inside and keep windows closed. The department said air quality has been affected, and people with respiratory ailments may have difficulty breathing.
And within the legal community, the historic fire presents a series of legal questions in anticipation of potential clients who may be physically harmed by the fire’s aftereffects.
“Smoke inhalation is a serious matter,” Brooklyn attorney Paul Oliveri told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“There is concern that there may be toxins in the building that are now in the air and may spread to surrounding residents,” environmental exposure attorney Abraham Jaros said.
“In fact,” Oliveri added, “what we’ve learned from fire cases is that there are more deaths that result from smoke inhalation than from burns themselves.” According to the National Fire Protection Association, smoke inhalation is the leading cause of deaths for indoor fires.
Prior to determining whether or not one has been harmed due to smoke inhalation caused by the Williamsburg fire, the first matter of business is how the fire was started and who is to blame. “
“What was the cause of the fire? Was it an electrical fire? A night watchman who dropped a cigarette? Or a flammable object in a storage container,” Oliveri asked.
The cause of the fire have yet to be determined, but it is being reported that the seven-alarm blaze was reported only two hours after firefighters had put out a small fire on a shelving unit in the same building. Leonard said investigators want to know if the two fires are connected. “The nature of what happened is under investigation by our fire marshal,” he said.
What caused the fire is a key factor in the legal determination of liability or who to file suit against. If the Citi Storage night watchman, for example, carelessly discarded a cigarette, then the watchman and the agency that employs him could be liable for damages.
“More often than not, the root of the fire was caused by some negligent mishap,” Oliveri advised. “When the fire marshal and government authorities conduct their investigation, they are looking for the source and eventually in their findings it results that someone was at fault through negligence and then there is a viable legal claim.”
“If a neighbor is injured by the smoke or unable to use their home, it is my opinion that they should have a legal claim,” Jaros advised. While there may be a viable claim of injury, the question of actual liability still remains.
“How far does legal liability or responsibility extend will always remain a question,” Jaros cautioned for any potential plaintiffs who may claim economic harm or losses caused by the fire.
In a 2001 case, involving the landowner of a collapsed construction project and neighboring buildings that were forced to close for a week, the New York State Court of Appeals held that a landowner’s liability does not reach those whose only injury is lost income. “We have never held, however, that a landowner owes a duty to protect an entire urban neighborhood against purely economic losses,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion in the case 532 Madison Ave v. Finlandia Center.
“You cannot always hold the building owner responsible,” Jaros, who represented a party in the Finlandia case, noted.
“Sometimes bad things happen to good people,” Oliveri said of possibly injured parties who otherwise may have no claim. “Unless someone is negligent or culpable under the law there would be no viable legal claim.”
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