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Did you know fires cause more deaths per year than all natural disasters combined? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fires are the fifth cause of unintentional deaths and third for fatal home injuries. Along with these statistics, the U.S. Fire Administration has stated that roughly 3,320 Americans died from related injuries in 2008, and an additional 16,705 were injured.
In many cases, fire-related deaths and injuries are entirely preventable. Out of the 1.4 million cases reported per year, 17,000 are intentionally set, and the rest result from accidents.
Reported cases are divided into the following types:
• Outside – 48 percent
• Structural – 36 percent
• Vehicular – 16 percent.
Within these groups, the flames may begin and spread from cooking, or a candle falling over. In more extreme instances, faulty appliances and old wiring may be the cause. However, if sparks turn into a full-blown blaze in an apartment building or development, the owner, municipality, or state may bear the responsibility, rather than the tenant. Landlords are required to ensure the structure meets all building codes, and are to fix the structure when it doesn’t. The state or local government, meanwhile, is expected to see that property owners or managers keep their buildings or facilities up to standard.
Fires, however, are either caused intentionally or accidentally. The former, known as arson, may be difficult to prove: Investigators must determine the fire was not started by natural causes, and then have to identify an individual with the crime. The instance may further be associated with insurance fraud.
To do this, a fire department first examines the burn patterns at the scene, looks for gasoline or other accelerants, and may conduct interviews with witnesses. After, evidence is submitted for forensic analysis.
Arson alone specifically means intentionally burning a structure that can be occupied. However, if the fire results in serious physical harm to another person, the crime becomes “aggravated arson.”
Injuries resulting from a fire fall within three types:
• Burn injuries – The resulting condition may spread across the entire body and be permanent.
• Injuries from toxic gases
• Smoke inhalation
Who Is Responsible?
Ultimately, depending upon how the fire started, multiple parties are responsible:
• Property owners and landlords
• Business operators
• Construction companies
• Building maintenance
• The state or city, if the fire related to a building or facility not being up to code, or workers not being properly licensed.
In a lawsuit related to a fire, plaintiffs seek to recover compensation for destroyed belongings, property, and resulting medical expenses, as well as for pain, suffering, mental anguish, and emotional distress. Depending upon the situation, lawsuits fall into the following types:
Premises Liability: The fire and resulting injuries can be traced back to a lack of building maintenance. Cases over the years have stemmed from landlords not keeping properties up to code, or from contractors, often unlicensed, being negligent while making repairs.
Product Liability: In these cases, a faulty product causes a fire, which in turn injures those using it. Standard product liability laws involving usage, warnings, and alterations come into play.
Class Action: When a fire damages multiple homes or properties, be it inside an apartment building or over a wider area, those who lost their homes and belongings may be eligible to file a class action lawsuit.
Wrongful Death: If negligence or a fire set intentionally results in multiple fatalities, surviving family members may file a wrongful death lawsuit. The defendant, in these cases, varies with the situation. For instance, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed against a Maine landlord in early 2015, after a fire resulted in six deaths inside his building. The structure, with multiple code violations dating back a decade, had disabled smoke detectors and a blocked exit. Or, more locally, a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of three girls and their grandparents killed in a Stamford fire named an unlicensed contractor performing renovations on their home as the defendant.
Public Safety: Should a corporation’s negligence create a fire and result in widespread health consequences, a city or residents may file a lawsuit. In one high-profile case, the city of Richmond, Calif., filed such a claim against Chevron in 2013, after a 2012 fire at a refinery covered the area in smoke. Residents, as a result, had to seek treatment, both immediate and long term, for respiratory problems, while the city had to shoulder the expenses for the cleanup and emergency response.