Williams v. Hous. Auth. of Bridgeport

Decision Date26 December 2017
Docket NumberSC 19570
Citation327 Conn. 338,174 A.3d 137
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
Parties Twila WILLIAMS, Administratrix (Estate of Tiana N.A. Black), et al. v. HOUSING AUTHORITY OF THE CITY OF BRIDGEPORT et al.

Daniel J. Krisch, for the appellants (defendant City of Bridgeport Fire Department et al.).

John T. Bochanis, with whom, on the brief, was Thomas J. Weihing, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Rogers, C.J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa and Vertefeuille, Js.*

ESPINOSA, J.

This certified appeal arises out of a tragic fire in which four residents of a Bridgeport public housing complex—Tiana N.A. Black and her three young children—lost their lives. The plaintiff, Twila Williams, as administratrix of the estate of each decedent,1 brought the present action against the Bridgeport Fire Department and five Bridgeport city officials—Fire Chief Brian Rooney, Fire Marshal William Cosgrove, Mayor William Finch, Zoning Administrator Dennis Buckley, and Building Official Peter Paajanen(collectively, the municipal defendants) as well as various other defendants who are not parties to the present appeal.2 The plaintiff alleged, among other things, that the decedents died as a result of the municipal defendants' negligent failure to inspect the smoke detection equipment in their apartment unit for compliance with applicable fire safety codes and regulations. The trial court, Sommer , J., rendered summary judgment for the municipal defendants, concluding, with respect to their alleged failure to inspect, that Connecticut's municipal liability statute, General Statutes § 52–557n, afforded them immunity from liability. The Appellate Court reversed, concluding that a jury reasonably could find that the conduct of the municipal defendants demonstrated "a reckless disregard for health or safety under all the relevant circumstances" and, therefore, that they were potentially liable pursuant to § 52–557n (b) (8).3

Williams v. Housing Authority , 159 Conn. App. 679, 696, 124 A.3d 537 (2015). We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

IFACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The following undisputed facts and procedural history are relevant to our disposition of this appeal. On November 13, 2009, the date on which the fire occurred, the decedents resided in building 12, unit 205, of the P.T. Barnum Apartments, a group of affordable housing units owned and maintained by the Bridgeport Housing Authority. Unit 205 was located on the second and third floors of a three story apartment building containing twenty residential units. The second floor of the apartment contained a kitchen, a half bath, and a dining/living room area, while the third floor housed three bedrooms and a full bath. Unit 205 had only a single point of ingress and egress, namely, a second floor door that opened onto a porch and an external staircase. Because the building lacked fire escapes, the only means of leaving unit 205 was through that door. This meant that an individual seeking to escape from the bedrooms on the third floor of unit 205 during an emergency had to travel down the internal staircase into the kitchen area, and then traverse the second floor dining/living room area to access the door. Because of frequent false alarms caused by cooking fumes, some residents of the P.T. Barnum Apartments were in the habit of covering or disabling their smoke detectors.

Pursuant to General Statutes § 29–305 (b),4 the Bridgeport fire marshal's office is required to conduct annual inspections of all multifamily residential units within Bridgeport. It is undisputed that the neither the municipal defendants nor their employees conducted the mandatory inspection of unit 205 in the year prior to November 13, 2009. Just one day before, however, on the afternoon of November 12, two employees of the housing authority did conduct a routine maintenance inspection of unit 205. The lead inspector, Alexander Guzman, stated that he is certified by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace smoke detector batteries and carry out health and safety inspections of multiunit residential facilities. In the course of inspecting unit 205, he and his assistant tested the smoke detectors, replaced one nonfunctioning detector, and changed the battery in another. Guzman reported that all of the smoke detectors in unit 205 were functioning properly upon completion of his inspection.

Hours later, in the early morning of Friday, November 13, a fire broke out in the kitchen of unit 205. Although neighbors reported seeing smoke and hearing smoke alarms prior to 12:45 a.m., they assumed that it was a false alarm and did not report the fire via a 911 telephone call until 12:56 a.m. The fire department arrived on the scene at 1:02 a.m. Firefighters extinguished the fire, gained entry to unit 205, and located and attempted to resuscitate the four decedents, each of whom subsequently was pronounced dead at an area hospital. The medical examiner concluded that all four had died of smoke inhalation. In addition, Black's blood alcohol level was found to be 0.23 percent.

Both the fire department and the state police investigated the circumstances surrounding the fire. With respect to the cause of the fire, both agencies concluded that it was accidental. One neighbor reported that Black had been a heavy drinker, who often drank so much alcohol on weekend evenings that she would pass out on the couch and could not be wakened by her children. That same neighbor further reported that Black's "stove was always very dirty, covered with grease and food." Consistent with this report, fire investigators observed a bottle of alcohol on the floor of unit 205, the remnants of combustible packaging, snack chips, and debris piled on the countertops adjacent to the kitchen stove, and several layers of burned grease caked on the stove itself. They also noted: the right rear burner of the gas stove was found in what was believed to be the "HI" or "ON" position; burn patterns suggested that the fire had originated near that burner; there was evidence of human activity near the stove at the time of the fire; and the burn injuries that Black sustained indicated that she had been in close proximity to the fire at some point, either when it ignited or in the course of trying to extinguish it. On the basis of these observations, investigators concluded that the conflagration was accidental and arose from a fire on the stove with human involvement. Fire department investigators specifically linked the fire to "carelessness," opining that "Black's blood alcohol content would likely have impaired her ability to respond appropriately to the initial alarm and to the fire itself."

Investigators also concluded that the five ionization type smoke detectors within unit 205 were operational at the time of the fire. With respect to the deaths of the decedents, investigators concluded that, given the locations of the bodies within unit 205, it was likely that all four of the decedents had been alerted to the fire and were attempting to leave at the time they died. Specifically, Black and Tyaisja Williams were found in the dining room area, just a few feet from the door; Nyaisja Williams was found on the living room floor; and Nyshon Williams was found near a window in one of the third floor bedrooms. Investigators concluded that the neighbors' delay of eleven minutes or more5 in notifying the fire department of the fire, combined with Black's elevated blood alcohol content, may have contributed to the four deaths.

The plaintiff commenced the present action against the defendants. In her revised complaint, the plaintiff alleged, among other things, that the municipal defendants failed to ensure that unit 205 complied with state building and fire safety codes, failed to remedy numerous defects in unit 205, and failed to conduct an annual fire safety inspection of unit 205 as required by § 29–305. The plaintiff specifically alleged that the municipal defendants knew or should have known about and remedied a number of asserted defects in unit 205, including the absence of fire escapes or other adequate means of egress, photoelectric smoke detectors, fire alarm systems, fire suppression systems, fire sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and fire safety or prevention plans. She alleged that such conduct on the part of the municipal defendants was both negligent and reckless.

The municipal defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming, among other things, that they were immune from liability for any claims of negligence pursuant to § 52–557n. With respect to allegations of negligence relating to discretionary conduct, the municipal defendants relied on § 52–557n (a) (2) (B), which provides in relevant part that "a political subdivision of the state shall not be liable for damages to person or property caused by ... negligent acts or omissions which require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the authority expressly or impliedly granted by law." With respect to allegations of negligence relating to any nondiscretionary, ministerial duty, such as the duty annually to inspect unit 205, the municipal defendants relied on § 52–557n (b) (8), which provides in relevant part that "a political subdivision of the state or any employee, officer or agent acting within the scope of his employment or official duties shall not be liable for damages to person or property resulting from ... failure to make an inspection or making an inadequate or negligent inspection of any property ... to determine whether the property complies with or violates any law or contains a hazard to health or safety, unless the political subdivision had notice of such a violation of law or such a hazard or unless such failure to inspect or such inadequate or negligent inspection constitutes a reckless disregard for health or safety under all the relevant circumstances ...." (Emphasis added.) The...

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  • Gonzalez v. Comm'r of Corr.
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    ...Co ., 232 Conn. 559, 580, 657 A.2d 212 (1995). Recklessness likewise presents a question of fact. See Williams v. Housing Authority , 327 Conn. 338, 360–61, 174 A.3d 137 (2017) ; Frillici v. Westport , 264 Conn. 266, 277, 823 A.2d 1172 (2003).15 Article first, § 8, of the Connecticut consti......
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