Verdicts & Settlements
Supplement to the Los Angeles Daily Journal and San Francisco Daily Journal
December 5, 1997

VERDICT: $354,120 (net — after reduction for comparative liability).

CASE/NUMBER: Kelly Torres, et al. v. Elmer and Curtistine Baker / 7553107

COURT/DATE: Alameda Superior / September 10, 1997

JUDGE: Hon. Gordon S. Baranco, Dept. 14.

DISBURSEMENT: $159,120 net (economic); $195,000 net (non-economic).

ATTORNEYS: Plaintiff — Dan Siegel, Jane Brunner (Siegel & Yee, Oakland); Defendant — Peter Pappas (Law Offices of Peter Pappas, Antioch)

TECHNICAL EXPERTS: Plaintiff — Jerry Blueford, fire safety (Oakland Fire Marshall), Oakland

MEDICAL EXPERTS: Plaintiff — Clifford Tschetter, M.D., pathologist, Oakland.

FACTS: The decedent, Salvador Torres, a 40-year old laboratory technician, rented a house in East Oakland from defendants, Elmer and Curtistine Baker. On December 23, 1994, after visiting his estranged wife, Kelly Torres, and making plans to spend the Christmas holiday together with their two children, the decedent went to the Laundromat to do the family’s wash. The decedent then went home, where he hung some of the still damp laundry near a floor heater and went to sleep on a mattress in the living room. The two bedrooms in the house crowded with boxes from his recent move. A sheet he had placed either near or on top of the floor heater caught fire. When the decedent awoke, the fire had developed to the point where it blocked his access to the hallway to the rest of the house, trapping him in the living room. The front door of the house was locked with a double deadbolt lock that required a key to open it from the inside. The location of the key at the time of the fire was unknown. The living room windows were blocked by security bars that could not be opened. A neighbor saw decedent beating on one of the windows and calling for help. Police officers who arrived several minutes later were able to pry one of the window bars off from the outside and remove decedent from the house. He had suffered from smoke inhalation and sustained second and third degree burns over approximately 65 percent of his body. Before his death, he told investigators that he had consumed a few beers before going to sleep and had placed a sheet over the floor heater in order to dry it. At the time of his death, the decedent had been separated from his wife for several months, but they were engaged in counseling and were hoping to reconcile. They had two children, Nora, age 8, and Andrea, age 10. Andrea was born with severe physical and mental disabilities and cannot speak, walk or care for herself. The plaintiffs, the decedent’s heirs, brought this action against defendants based on a negligence theory of recovery.

CONTENTIONS: The plaintiffs acknowledged that the decedent’s carelessness caused the fire but contended that defendants’ negligence caused decedent’s death. The plaintiffs also contended that the house lacked a smoke detector which was required by a city ordiance. The plaintiffs further contended that the installation of security bars that could not be opened presented a known safety hazard and violated the landlords’ duty of care. The defendants contended that the home had been equipped with a smoke detector and suggested that it had been lost while firefighters were putting out the fire. The defendants also contended that the security bars were necessary in the neighborhood where the home was located and that its use was lawful. He defendants further contended that the fire and death were the result of decedent’s negligence.

INJURIES: Death of a husband and father.

SPECIALS IN EVIDENCE: Meds $89,683 (decedent’s medicals).

JURY TRIAL: Length five days; Poll varied; Deliberation one day; Comparative Liability: 61 percent (decedent) 39 percent (defendants). Gross verdict of $908,000 reduced by plaintiff’s comparative liability.

SETTLEMENT DISCUSSIONS: The plaintiffs made a settlement demand for $150,000. The defendant made an offer of $13,000.

EXPERT TESTIMONY: Plaintiff’s expert, Oakland Fire Marshall Jerry Blueford, testified that the absence of a smoke detector was a factor causing the decedent’s injuries and that security bars that could not be opened were a known hazard.

OTHER INFORMATION: The verdict was reached approximately two years and one month after the case was filed.