Cause of Deadly Fire Challenged in Lawsuit

In October of last year, a two-alarm fire in Northeast Baltimore brought firefighters to the scene of an inferno where fire and smoke engulfed a two-story row house. Family members jumped from second-story windows to survive the blaze that ultimately took the lives of 55-year-old Nancy Worrell and four of her grandchildren ranging in age from 1 to 7.

In July of this year, parents of the children and the husband of Ms. Worrell filed suit against the landlord and the Baltimore city housing authority for causing the wrongful deaths of the fire victims. In a complaint, the plaintiffs allege the defendants failed to repair or require repair of a faulty furnace or to require installation of working smoke alarms.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, residential fires between 2009 and 2011 took the lives of approximately 740 people each year, injuring 175 and causing $34 million in property damage. Points about residential fires in the United States include:

  • Most fire deaths occur because of inhalation of smoke or toxic gases, not from burns.
  • Cooking is the leading cause of residential fires.
  • The leading cause of death in a residential fire is smoking.

Not surprisingly, those most at risk from a residential fire include the very young, the old and those living in substandard housing. As in the residential fire described here, more than one-third of residential fire deaths occur in homes without smoke alarms. In this case, investigators determined the fire started as a result of materials stored near the furnace, a finding challenged by counsel for the plaintiffs.

The circumstances may include a faulty furnace, combustible materials stored nearby, no smoke alarms and five people dead in the accident that resulted, but while the cause is to be debated in court, the tragic consequences cannot.

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