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Suit seeks $57M for fatal fire

Family blames landlord, HABC for deaths of 5 people last fall

The families of a grandmother and her four young grandchildren who died in a house fire last fall are suing the landlord and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

In a lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday, the family is asking for $31 million from the housing authority and $18 million from the landlord based on the five lives lost, in addition to funeral expenses from the defendants jointly.

In addition, the suit seeks a total of $8 million, split equally between the defendants, on behalf of two family members who were badly burned but survived.

An eighth family member survived the fire but died two months later, with the cause yet to be determined, the complaint says.

“The suffering of course is in the loss of life,” said the families’ lawyer, A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore solo attorney. “That’s a tragedy that has very dramatic results as well as the very, very serious injuries sustained by the survivors. We are talking about five, six, seven, eight people through no negligence of theirs. It is horrible.”

According to the suit, Nancy Fenner Worrell had repeatedly warned her landlord, Paul Stanton, that the furnace in her basement at 5601 Denwood Ave. was not functioning properly before the house caught fire in October last year.

Worrell had lived in the single family rowhouse for three years and Stanton was responsible for installation and maintenance of the house furnace and smoke detectors, the complaint alleged.

The housing authority subsidized Worrell’s rent through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Under the program, HABC was required to inspect the house to make sure it complied with city code, state law and fire protection standards, the suit said.

A telephone number for Stanton could not be found Wednesday. Messages left after hours at the HABC and on a spokeswoman’s cell phone were not returned Wednesday evening. The suit says notice of the claim was filed with Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson, who also could not be reached Wednesday evening.

According to the lawsuit, Worrell contacted Stanton five times throughout the month of January 2012 about the malfunctioning furnace, saying it did not heat the house. Her husband and daughter, both plaintiffs in the case, also repeatedly contacted Stanton about the furnace, the complaint says.

Stanton told all three that he would send someone to fix the furnace, but never did, the plaintiffs alleged.

“We think notice was given as to the difficulty with the furnace,” Pettit said. “The notice was repeated and the landlord had complete notice.”

On Jan. 17, an inspector from the housing authority looked at the furnace, but his written report said his findings were inconclusive, the complaint alleged.

“We think that the responsibility is not only with the landlord who is receiving certain funds from the department of housing, but it’s also incumbent on the housing department to check and ensure that those fire alarms are operable,” Pettit said.

At about 2 a.m. Oct. 11, the house caught fire while the household slept. Worrell and her grandchildren, Kniyah Norra Scott, 2; Tykia Maria Manley, 7; Darryl Stewart III, 4; and James Tivon Holden Jr., 1, burned to death.

A report by the Baltimore City Fire Department found the fire started in the furnace and identified it as the source of the fire. Three people escaped, including Worrell’s husband and her daughter.

The suit includes five wrongful death counts against the housing authority and five against Stanton (seeking a total of $26 million from the housing authority and $13 million from Stanton); separate survival counts against each defendant for the conscious pain and suffering the five fatalities experienced before their deaths ($5 million against each defendant); negligence counts for the burn victims who lived through the fire ($4 million against each defendant), and funeral expenses ($50,000, as a joint and several award against the defendants).