Appeals Court Decision May Help Fire Plaintiffs With AM-Social Club Fire
NEW YORK (AP) _ A state appeals court issued a decision three days before a Bronx social club fire that probably strengthens the victims’ families’ chances of successfully suing the owner or landlord of the fire site.
One victim’s mother has already sued the owners, lessees and proprietors of the club for $510 million, her lawyer said Thursday. Many other relatives of the 87 people who died already have contacted lawyers.
But their success seems to depend on their ability to collect from the only potential defendants with substantial assets or insurance - the building’s owner, Alex DiLorenzo, and its landlords, Jay Weiss and Morris Jaffe.
The families’ case appears to have been buttressed by a March 22 ruling by a state appeals court.
In a 3-2 decision, the panel ruled that an owner of real estate who allows it to be used for an unlawful purpose can be liable for damages caused by the illegal activity to innocent people who are not tenants.
The case involved 9-year-old Miguel Muniz, who was blinded by stray gunfire from a Harlem building that had been a center of drug dealing. The appellate panel reversed a judge who had ruled that the landlord could not be held liable for damages.
Aaron Broder, the lawyer who represented the boy and is advising plaintiffs’ lawyers in the social club case, said courts have tended to rule that unless harm to an innocent third party flowed from a building defect over which a landlord had direct control, the landlord could not be held liable.
The social club was the scene of arrests for illegal alcohol sales and was repeatedly cited for building and safety code violations, including the lack of fire alarms, sprinklers and emergency exits. The city’s Buildings Department finally ordered it closed. A copy of the order was tacked to the club’s front door, and at least one copy was supposed to have been sent to Dilorenzo or Weiss and Jaffe.
The chain of control begins with DiLorenzo, who owns the building and gave a 30-year lease to Weiss and Jaffe. They, in turn, leased the premises to Elias Colon, who operated the social club.
Since Colon died in the fire - and is not thought to have had substantial assets or insurance - plaintiffs’ attorneys will focus on the owner and the landlord, arguing that they were aware, or should have been aware, of the illegal uses of the premises and should have done something.
The Muniz case is particularly relevant because, as in the case of the social club, the landlord already had gone to court seeking the tenant’s eviction for non-payment of rent, not for breaking any law or regulation.
″The court (in Muniz) held that if a landlord has sought to evict a tenant for non-payment and does not choose to seek eviction for other reasons, it’s evidence of his potential negligence,″ Broder said.
″The landlord demonstrated he was capable of using the courts, but only when it was profitable to him.″
But a real estate lawyer, Flora Schnall, said the fact Weiss and Jaffe were trying to evict Colon was more important than why. Non-payment of rent, she said, ″is the easiest thing to evict someone for. It’s very difficult to evict someone for illegal uses.″