Nov 16, 2023 Michael M. Day Law Firm

After a Building Fire or Other Disaster, Who Can You Sue?

Not long ago, a fire in an apartment complex in northeast Atlanta injured 17 people and forced more than 100 others to evacuate. That incident captured headlines, partially because it led to the arrest of two individuals for setting off fireworks from the roof of the building. But fires happen all the time. Just a few days after the fireworks incident, an electrical fire and explosion in a midtown high-rise left two men in critical condition with serious injuries.

These incidents leave many people wondering what they would do in that situation. In addition to medical bills, those injured in building fires and other disasters usually miss time from work and suffer losses that impact their lives far into the future. Who can you sue for compensation after a building disaster? Several different parties may be held liable for the consequences of a fire, collapse, or other building disaster, so let’s look at the factors that affect that determination.

Basic Premises Liability

Georgia law holds the owner or manager of property liable for injuries suffered on the property in many cases under a theory known as premises liability. If a property owner invites members of the public onto the property, the law imposes a duty to protect them from certain dangerous conditions. 

For someone to recover compensation from the owner of a building based on premises liability, they must show that:

  • They were “invited” onto the property, which essentially means that they have the permission of the owner to be there
  • The property owner or manager was negligent in keeping the property safe
  • Such negligence caused injuries
  • The injuries are sufficient enough to justify compensation

Essentially, the property owner, as well as the person or company managing the property, has a duty to “exercise ordinary care” to keep the premises safe. That duty covers people encouraged to enter the property for commercial reasons, such as shoppers entering a store or tenants paying rent. 

The duty of care can also extend to people who were not encouraged to enter but who were allowed to enter, such as guests of the tenants. However, the property owner has no duty to protect someone who is trespassing and on the property unlawfully.

When a property owner or manager breaches their duty of ordinary care and that causes someone to get hurt, that can make the property owner liable for their negligence. Proving negligence can be complicated, so it is important for anyone who wants to seek compensation for their losses to begin gathering and preserving evidence as soon as possible. For instance, footage from a security camera might show what happened during a slip and fall incident or the condition of the property before or after an incident, but that footage may get erased or recorded over unless an attorney gets a subpoena to preserve it.

What is Considered Negligence for a Property Owner?

A property owner can be considered legally negligent for a number of reasons. In many premises liability cases, a property owner may be found negligent for a “static defect” in the property that causes harm, such as a loose floorboard that causes people to trip, or a “foreign substance” such as spilled oil on the floor. The owner has a duty to take proper precautions to warn people of the problem and prevent them from getting hurt, such as putting up a barricade.

However, to hold the owner responsible for injuries suffered on the property, the person injured must demonstrate that the owner knew or should have known about the danger. For instance, if tenants in an apartment building are hurt due to the collapse of the rusted support poles holding up a staircase, the tenants might argue that the owner of the building knew about the rusted dangerous conditions of the staircase supports because he had a reserved parking space right next to the stairs and passed the staircase every morning on his way into the office. 

If the owner tried to argue that he never looked at it or that he never went to the site and therefore didn’t know about the dangerous condition, the tenants’ attorney should argue that the owner had a duty to inspect periodically to ensure the premises rented to tenants was in a safe condition. If they can prove that the hazard existed long enough that it should have been discovered, that should be sufficient to satisfy that element of the case.

A dangerous condition can also be caused by crime on the premises. If a property owner knew or should have known that the property was in an area with a high number of assaults or break-ins and the owner failed to provide adequate security measures, the owner may be held responsible for harm caused by the negligent security.

In the case of a fire or other building disaster, a property owner or manager could be liable for creating or failing to fix conditions that led to the fire, that allowed the fire to spread quickly, or that caused people to suffer greater injuries. If the building manager failed to keep fire escape routes free and clear, that could lead to liability. If there weren’t enough fire alarms or sprinklers, the owner could be liable for harm resulting from a fire. The owner or manager might also be responsible if the alarms were not working properly, but others could be liable for that failure as well.

Liability of Outside Parties

When people suffer injuries in a building fire or other disaster, the property owner may not be to blame at all, or the owner or manager might share the blame with others. In the case of Atlanta, the fire was started by fireworks, and the individuals setting off explosive devices would certainly be held responsible. But others could be liable as well. 

For instance, if residents suffered smoke inhalation injuries because smoke alarms didn’t go off soon enough, the company that manufactured the alarms may be liable, or the company in charge of building maintenance could share in the blame. If a tenant blocked the stairwell and made it difficult for people to evacuate so that they inhaled too much smoke or suffered burns, that tenant could be liable, and the building management might also be considered responsible if they allowed that dangerous condition in the stairwell to exist for too long.  

An Experienced Attorney Can Hold Parties Responsible for Harm in Fire or Other Disaster

Until someone has conducted a thorough investigation, it can be difficult to determine who may be held responsible for a building disaster such as a fire. Most people are not equipped to conduct that type of investigation on their own. An experienced attorney, however, will be able to call on experts who can determine liability and present persuasive evidence to enable victims to recover compensation for their pain, suffering, and other losses. If you have been injured in a building fire, collapse, or other disaster, the dedicated team at Michael M. Day Law Firm is ready to help. Contact our team today for a free consultation and case evaluation.