On January 9, 2013, the widow of a 74-year-old man killed in a Sandy Springs house fire accepted $1 million to settle his wrongful death case. It was the third anniversary of his death.
Lidia Darnell is a 74-year-old woman who at the time of the fire worked as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy Sandy Springs homeowner. Mrs. Darnell lived with her husband of many years, Dale, in the basement of the house.
When Lidia started working for the property owner 20 years ago, she and Dale were allowed to live in the entire basement. However, after Lidia returned from a trip home to the Philippines around 1996, they found that the owner had finished the basement and her quarters were now a small room behind the bar. The room had formerly been used as a storage area.
This room violated at least two building codes in that it had only one door and no windows. Fire safety codes require a “secondary means of egress,” meaning a second exterior door or window. The purpose of this secondary means of egress is to allow a person to escape in the event of a fire, or to allow rescuers to get in to the room.
In addition, the furnace that provided heat to 8,000 square-foot house was located in the Darnell’s new quarters. The door to the furnace opened into the Darnell’s room, which was also a code violation.
On the afternoon of January 9, 2010, Lidia prepared lunch for Dale, then went upstairs to clean the owners’ master bathroom. She left Dale asleep in his bed. About an hour later, she heard Dale calling for help. She rushed downstairs, where she and the owners found thick, dark smoke billowing from the basement. As Dale screamed for help, Lidia and the owners tried to make their way to the door of the basement apartment. However, despite their combined efforts to save Dale, the fire and smoke prevented them from reaching him.
The Sandy Springs Fire Department arrived within 5 minutes, and one firefighter fought his way into the room. However, the smoke and heat forced him out before he could find Dale.
After the fire, Dale was found dead in the bathroom in his tiny apartment.
The owners defended the case by arguing that because of how the fire spread, the code violations had nothing to do with Dale’s death. They also argued that he was mentally disabled due to dementia and might not have been able to think clearly enough to escape the fire. They also argued that he was physically too weak to make his way out of the blaze even if the room had secondary means of egress.
Mrs. Darnell’s fire experts refuted the owners’ arguments about how the fire spread. Dale’s medical records, along with testimony by the Fulton County Medical Examiner and a psychiatrist refuted the owners’ arguments that Mr. Darnell was mentally or physically infirm and thus unable to escape from the fire.
The autopsy of Dale also revealed that he had been alive and conscious in the fire. A fire scientist testified that Dale was likely alive for as long as 19 minutes. Dale suffered a terrible death by carbon monoxide poisoning and asphyxiation.
After the settlement, Lidia’s first concern was that her attorneys return her picture of Dale. “It’s my favorite picture of him,” she said, “And I miss it.”
Michael Neff was lead counsel on the case. He was assisted by his Associates D. Dwayne Adams, Susan Cremer, and T. Shane Peagler. Co-counsel was Todd Henningsen of Henningsen Injury Attorneys. Gino Brogdon mediated the case and was instrumental in facilitating settlement days before trial.