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A federal lawsuit to determine whether the companies that own and manage a Chenal Parkway apartment complex are liable for the death of a tenant in a 2016 fire is headed for a jury trial beginning next Tuesday.

The trial date was confirmed Monday in an order signed by U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes, who last week denied requests by the defendants, Landings Acquisition LLC and Maxus Properties Inc., to dismiss the case and to stop the plaintiff -- the victim's brother -- from seeking punitive damages.

The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by Anthony "Tony" Joseph Dillon, whose sister, 58-year-old Jannell Dillon, died on the morning of Aug. 18, 2016, after a required smoke detector in her ground-floor unit, Apartment 130 at The Landings at Rock Creek, failed to sound. Firefighters who responded to the scene that morning found her body in a fetal position in a hallway outside two bedrooms, covered by debris from a collapsed ceiling. It was later determined that she died from smoke and soot inhalation.

The fire, which ignited overnight of an unknown cause, also didn't trigger a smoke detector in an adjoining apartment from which a 911 call was placed, according to the lawsuit.

It said the smoke detector in the apartment rented by Dillon, a lawyer, was installed more than 13 years earlier, three years beyond its manufacturer-designated 10-year life span. The suit was filed by attorneys Paul James and Don Overton of Little Rock.

In an order filed April 9, Holmes said the defendants wanted to call Ryan Baker, a fire investigator, as an expert witness on the fire's cause and origin. He said it was Baker's opinion that the fire started in Jannell Dillon's west bedroom, probably as a result of smoking in bed.

"Most of Baker's testimony is admissible," Holmes said in response to the plaintiff's argument that Baker didn't personally conduct each inspection of the scene and all of a laboratory examination of evidence from the scene. But, he said, Baker cannot testify that Dillon herself discarded a smoldering cigarette, as that isn't part of Baker's expertise and isn't in the realm of what fire investigators may testify about.

Holmes overruled the plaintiff's objection to another witness the defendants plan to call as an expert -- Tony Bishop, a forensic engineer. The plaintiff wanted the judge to exclude Bishop's opinion that electrical devices in the building weren't the source of ignition. Holmes noted that the jury will be able to hear rebuttal testimony from a witness for the plaintiff.

While the owner and the operator of the 154-unit complex at 13200 Chenal Parkway asked the judge to prohibit testimony tying the smoke alarm's failure to sound to Jannell Dillon's death, Holmes denied the request, saying that "reasonable minds could differ on the question of causation."

The companies said Dillon suffered from many extensive health problems. They cited a postmortem toxicology report showing nicotine, alcohol and various medications in her system at the time of her death, arguing that "the jury would have to speculate to find that if the smoke alarm had in fact sounded, Dillon would not have been able to escape the fire anyway due to her poor physical state."

"It is undisputed," Holmes said, "that Dillon had an extensive medical history, including severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease which caused her to be dependent on an oxygen tank. .... Contrary to the defendants' arguments, however, the estate has produced evidence that despite Dillon's poor health, many medications and blood alcohol concentration above the legal driving limit, she would have been able to respond to a functioning smoke alarm."

He said that since Dillon's body was found in the hallway and her oxygen tank was in her bedroom, a jury could reasonably infer that she had detached herself from the tank and that smoke in her bedroom alerted her to the fire. He said a jury could also find that she was physically and mentally able to react appropriately to danger and that she did so by exiting the bedroom, albeit too late to escape.

"It is reasonable to infer from these facts that had a smoke alarm sounded, Dillon could have escaped earlier," the judge wrote. "A jury could fairly infer, therefore, that the malfunctioning smoke alarm caused Dillon's death based on all the circumstantial evidence."

In denying the defendants' request to take punitive damages off the table, Holmes noted that they "had in place a policy in which [they] recognized the importance of functional smoke detectors to the safety of the apartment residents. The policy also requires that smoke detectors be changed out every ten years. Here ... Dillon's smoke detector was not functional, and it was twelve to eighteen years old."

He noted that evidence shows that almost two years before the fatal fire, the complex purchased more than 100 replacement smoke alarms but never got them installed.

The companies are being represented by attorneys Spence Fricke and Rachel Hildebrand of the Barber Law Firm in Little Rock.

Metro on 04/16/2019

Print Headline: Trial set in suit over '16 fire death

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