Family of Iowa Boarding House Blaze Victim Awarded $750K

Another man also died in the March 2011 blaze.

Dec. 10--WAPELLO -- A Louisa County jury Monday awarded $750,000 in damages to the family of a man killed when fire trapped him inside a burning boarding house in Columbus Junction in March 2011.

The four-woman, four-man jury deliberated about three hours before awarding the monetary damages to the family of James Mitchell, the 57-year-old man who died in the blaze.

Jurors awarded Mitchell's estate $500,000 in actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.

"We are very satisfied with the hard work of the judge and jury in this case," said Nicholas Pothitakis, the Burlington attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Mitchell's estate. "No amount of money will bring Mr. Mitchell back. But we are satisfied with the jury's decision."

Pressley Henningsen, Pothitakis' co-counsel, had asked the jury for $2 million in damages. He sought $1.5 million in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages, claiming the jury needed to send a message to the community that landlords cannot disregard the safety of tenants.

"This is a case about a man (Paul Buffington) who made the decision not to do the right things for his tenants," Henningsen told the jury during closing arguments Monday. "Mr. Mitchell died because of those decisions."

Court observers said it could be one of the largest, if not the largest, monetary judgement ever awarded in a Louisa County civil case.

In reaching its decision, the jury determined the owners of the boarding house, Paul and Carol Buffington, operated it in a negligent manner.

In a surprise move Monday morning, Brian Yung, an attorney representing the Buffingtons, told District Judge Michael Schilling he would not present any witnesses on behalf of his clients. He also said the Buffingtons decided not to testify.

However, Yung told Schilling the Buffingtons would admit in court documents they were negligent by failing to provide two exits for the safety of the residents of the boarding house, by failing to install and maintain working windows in each sleeping room and for failing to install smoke detectors in each sleeping room.

Jurors were informed of the Buffingtons' admissions in instructions provided to them prior to beginning deliberations.

Henningsen, who indicated he spent two years working on the case, said it was inappropriate for Mr. Buffington to come into court on the day he was expected to testify and admit what he wouldn't admit since Mitchell's death almost three years ago: that he was negligent by not installing safety features in the boarding house as required by law.

At the core of the lawsuit was the amount of "pre-death mental anguish, pain and suffering" Mitchell experienced while trapped inside his 10-by-17-foot sleeping room.

Evidence at the trial indicated the fire began about 2:35 p.m. In the intervening 14 minutes, Mitchell made 19 cellphone calls attempting to seek help. His calls, to a land line phone, were not answered.

Mitchell was found several hours after the blaze was extinguished on the floor near his bed. An autopsy indicated he died from carbon monoxide poisoning after breathing toxic smoke from the flash fire that raced through the two-story building in a manner of minutes.

A second man, Timonthy Miles, 52, also was killed in the blaze. He was found outside his sleeping room in a hallway leading to the front door. His estate has not filed any lawsuits in connection with his death. Several other people escaped the blaze with minor injuries.

Henningsen told the jury the $2 million in damages seems like a lot of money, "but it isn't when you consider what Mr. Mitchell went through" in the minutes prior to his death.

"He was alone," Heninngsen said. "He felt terror and fear knowing he was going to die ... It wasn't just a feeling. He knew he was going to die.

"I know $2 million is a lot of money ... but knowing you are going to die by fire is worth a lot of money.

"I want you to hold (the Buffingtons) accountable for how they have treated people for decades."

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