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Landlord sues his own experts for losing evidence

The children of Louise Lewis settled their wrongful death lawsuit against her landlord last year for $125,000. Now the landlord is seeking to recoup that money from an unusual source: two expert witnesses hired by his defense, who allegedly lost evidence that could have helped him prove he was not liable for the fatal apartment fire.

Robert Poudrier alleges Robert A. Simpson and Michael Schaal lost an electrical outlet and attached wires and connections from the 2008 fire in an East Baltimore rowhouse, according to a lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

“Without [the evidence], the defense was unable to support its position that the subject fire was not caused through any acts of negligence by the Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges Simpson, an electrical engineer, said Schaal lost the evidence, while Schaal, a certified fire and explosion investigator, said Simpson lost the evidence.

Simpson, of Adamstown-based R.A. Simpson Consulting, disputed that characterization in an interview Monday.

“I only said I did not lose the evidence,” said Simpson, who had not yet seen the complaint filed Friday.

Simpson added he has been involved in investigations where evidence was lost “every once in a while” in his 23 years in business.

Messages left with Schaal, of Fire & Arson Investigation Consultants Inc. in Pasadena, were not returned.

Lewis was trapped in her second-floor apartment in the rowhouse, in the 3000 block of Fairmount Street, when the fire started inside the first-floor apartment Aug. 17, 2008, according to court records. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where she died the next day.

The $2 million wrongful death complaint, filed in August 2011, claims Poudrier attempted to repair an electrical outlet on the first floor the day before the fatal fire. A fire department investigation cited the cause “as an electrical fault” and stated Poudrier “was conducting unlicensed electrical work … on an electrical outlet in the very room” where the fire started, according to court documents.

Simpson and Schaal went to the house in the days after the fire and removed the outlet box and wires, as well as the damaged carpet, according to court documents in the wrongful death lawsuit.

Lon C. Engel, a lawyer for Poudrier and Poudrier’s Creo Properties LLC in the lawsuit against the experts, said Simpson and Schaal both wrote reports based on the evidence they collected. Engel, of Engel & Engel P.A. in Baltimore, declined to discuss the details of those reports. (Simpson also confirmed he completed a report but declined to discuss the details.)

The evidence was lost during litigation in the wrongful death lawsuit, according to Engel, who did not represent Poudrier in that matter.

Lewis’ lawyers in the wrongful death suit allegedly learned of the missing evidence before Poudrier’s lawyers did, according to court documents.

The experts for Lewis’ children had visited Schaal’s office to examine the objects, which could not be found, according to court documents. On March 8, 2012, a lawyer for Lewis’ estate then emailed Poudrier’s lawyer to request the objects.

“It is important that our experts have the opportunity to examine all of the evidence,” the email states in part. “We would also note that evidence of this nature would be important for any fire investigator and therefore would be retained by any properly trained investigator.”

Poudrier learned of the missing evidence on April 1, 2012, from his lawyers, according to his lawsuit. The lawyers said Simpson and Schaal told them “the evidence was lost,” according to his lawsuit.

One of Poudrier’s lawyers responded to Lewis’ lawyers at the end of April with the news.

“I have been informed that both Mr. Schaal and Mr. Robert Simpson have conducted thorough reviews of their evidence facilities and have not been able to locate the electrical receptor,” the lawyer wrote, according to court documents in the wrongful death lawsuit.

Lawyers for Lewis’ estate filed a motion to sanction the defendants for spoliation of evidence and to grant default judgment in June 2012. The motion was not heard because the case against the landlord settled two months later.

The present action against Simpson and Schaal includes counts for breach of contract and professional negligence. In addition to the $125,000 paid to Lewis’ children, Poudrier seeks the return of money paid to his experts to “collect, store and maintain the evidence safely” in the wrongful death action.

Poudrier sold the rowhouse in 2009, according to state property records.

The case is Poudrier et al. v. Simpson et al., No. 24-C-13-008245, Baltimore City Circuit Court.