Calif. Couple Sues Apt. Building Owners After Fire

July 18, 2013
The six-alarm fire left one resident dead and 20 hurt, including three firefighters.

July 18--Two tenants who say they lost most of their possessions in a fire that heavily damaged a Redwood City apartment complex sued the building's owner on Tuesday, according to their lawyer.

The six-alarm fire in the 72-unit Hallmark House Apartments at 531 Woodside Road displaced 97 residents and killed one tenant -- 48-year-old Darin Michael Demello-Pine. About 20 people, including three firefighters, were injured as a result of the fire, first reported around 2 a.m. on July 7.

Although the cause is still under investigation, fire officials said the blaze appeared to have started in Demello-Pine's third-floor apartment.

The lawsuit, filed in San Mateo County Superior Court on behalf of Jorge and Juanita Chavez, states that Hallmark House residents "suffered displacement, fear, emotional trauma, and the loss of most of their life's possessions" because of the fire.

The building's owner, KDF Hallmark LP, is to blame for the way the fire spread, according to the lawsuit, because it failed to "properly inspect, maintain and safeguard the property from a foreseeable unit fire."

Attorney Ara Jabagchourian of the Burlingame law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy is representing the husband and wife. In a phone interview Wednesday, he said there weren't enough smoke detectors and there should have been a sprinkler system even though one wasn't required by state law in the older building. A fire in one unit should not have been able to

grow so large that it took more than 100 firefighters to contain it, he said.

The plaintiffs were sleeping in their second-story unit when the fire started and awoke to screams in the hallway; they did not hear a fire alarm, Jabagchourian said. They managed to get to the building's bottom floor garage and escape in their vehicle without physical injuries, he said. They are now living with their daughter, who has a home in the Bay Area, he added.

The suit seeks unspecified damages. Jabagchourian said the law firm is also speaking with other former tenants interested in suing KDF.

KDF founder Mark Hyatt said in a phone interview that he can't comment on the pending legal action but noted that Redwood City fire officials confirmed in news interviews that the Hallmark House had its annual inspection in April and was given a "clean bill of health."

The affordable housing complex was purchased by KDF in 2003 for $8.2 million, including a $650,000 loan from Redwood City.

"KDF Hallmark was much more interested in attempting to recoup its over $8 million purchase price in the shortest time possible, thus foregoing on basic improvements to protect its tenants and their contents," the lawsuit states.

The company also was sued in March by two other residents who claimed they suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from a clogged wall heater. Their complaint is scheduled for a case management conference in San Mateo County Superior Court on Aug. 9.

Email Bonnie Eslinger at [email protected]; follow her at bonnieeslinger.

Copyright 2013 - Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!