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Legal ramifications unclear after off-campus apartment fire

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An off-campus fire occurs Oct. 18 at 1706 E. Summit St. in the early morning. Credit: Courtesy of Brandon Heidinger An off-campus fire occurs Oct. 18 at 1706 E. Summit St. in the early morning. Credit: Courtesy of Brandon Heidinger An off-campus fire occurs Oct. 18 at 1706 E. Summit St. in the early morning. Credit: Courtesy of Brandon Heidinger An off-campus fire occurs Oct. 18 at 1706 E. Summit St. in the early morning. Credit: Courtesy of Brandon Heidinger

An off-campus fire occurs Oct. 19 at 1706 E. Summit St. in the early morning. Credit: Courtesy of Brandon Heidinger

An off-campus fire that forced 12 Ohio State students to leave their residences might have started after a fire was set to a front porch couch — a piece of furniture that the city of Columbus has banned from porches. Meanwhile, legal experts have said it’s unclear if the tenants or the landlord of the building might be held liable for the damages.

That fire ­— which occurred at an off-campus apartment complex at 1706 E. Summit during the early hours of Oct. 19 — was an arson, according to some witnesses.

Upholstered furniture on a front porch has been banned for a decade in Columbus, but Sarah Cole, a professor at OSU’s Moritz College of Law, said it’s unlikely the blame would go toward the tenants for property damage.

“The person who is liable is the person who set the fire,” she said. “Assuming that person can’t be found I don’t think you’re going to find civil liability on the students because by leaving a couch on the porch you don’t create a risk that an arsonist would come by and set it (the couch) on fire.”

Because having a couch on the porch is only a violation of a city ordinance, it could just mean that the city of Columbus will charge a fine, Cole said.

However, it’s possible that landlords at 1st Place Realty, which owns the damaged building, could file a claim on their homeowner’s insurance against the tenants.

“That insurance will decide whether or not somebody else was responsible,” said Molly Philipps, attorney at OSU’s Student Legal Services. “If so, they might decide to do what is called a subrogation.”

Subrogation is the right for an insurer — like an insurance company — to pursue a third party that caused an insurance loss to a party that’s insured — in this case, the landlords — according to Investopedia. It’s a way to recover the claim amount the insurer paid to the insured party.

Renters can have protection for damaged personal property inside a home in the case of a fire or natural disaster through renter’s insurance, which at least one of the tenants of the charred complex said he and his roommates didn’t have prior to the fire.

“Apparently everyone else knew about it, but we found out after the facts,”  said Samuel Massari, a fifth-year in computer science and engineering and tenant at the building — who lives at the 1708 E. Summit St. side of the apartment duplex.

Aside from the damage to their building, students also lost a television, an MP3 player and a table among other items in the fire, he said.

Still, Massari said thinks his damaged possessions will be covered by his father’s homeowner’s insurance. 

“They asked me to prepare a list of all my stuff,” he said. 

And even though he sent a list of his damaged personal possessions to his father’s homeowner insurance provider, senior vice president of the Ohio Insurance Institute Mary Bonelli said she thinks it’s doubtful it’ll get covered.

“Unfortunately, in all likelihood, if it’s an apartment and not part of a dorm, it would not be covered for those types of losses,” Bonelli said. “It’s really important for a family member to have a discussion with their insurance company or agent regarding student housing to make sure coverage is in place.”

But Massari’s complex isn’t the first building in the city to illegally have a piece of upholstered furniture on the front porch.

In fact, the number of violations from 2012 to 2013 increased nearly 47 percent, from 487 to 715, Cynthia Rickman, assistant director for the Department of Development for the city of Columbus, said in an email.

Bryan Dulle, 1st Place Realty landlord, said Columbus city code enforcement personnel are a landlord’s eyes and ears to help enforce codes.

“As owners, we don’t go out in a daily bases and drive by our properties to see who is in a code violation,” he said. “There is a check system in place for this.”

City code enforcement personnel patrol Columbus and serve written notices for violations they see, which can include basic house keeping, said Lt. Dottie Dorn, of the Columbus Division of Fire.

And Dorn said it’s not only couches that pose as fire hazards to off-campus residences.

Leaving trash on the front yard or an accumulation of waste over time is hazardous as well, she said. 

“Somebody could easily set trash on fire, or if you’re trying to escape a fire, that could also hamper your way to get out,” she said. 

Neighbors and pedestrians around the Summit Street home on Oct. 19 called 911, and some ran into the burning building, pounding on bedroom doors in effort to wake up tenants.  

“If the person that saw the fire happening didn’t run in and get everyone out, it could have had a pretty bad ending,” Dorn said.

She said the cause of the fire was still under investigation as of Friday afternoon. 

A similar fire occurred in April 2003, when a burning couch on the front porch of a residence at 64 E. 17th Ave. caused a fire that led to the death of five college students. City officials ruled the fire an arson and it led to revisions of Columbus’ fire code, which banned the placement of upholstered furniture outside of any residence, Dorn said.

One comment

  1. Mr Dulle,

    I don’t think taxpayers signed up to provide a “landlord’s eyes and ears” nor would they endorse paying for a “check system in place” for campus area slumlords.

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