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College Students Killed in Fire in a Rented Home–Is There Legal Liability for Their Deaths?

In Poughkeepsie, NY last week, a fire tore through a private home being rented by Marist College students near the campus. The fire killed killed two students and one former student. Four other people in the house escaped without serious injuries.

The off-campus house was being rented by six female Marist students. At about 1:30 a.m., the fire was initially reported to 911 by someone driving past the house. There were seven people in the house at that moment: four female residents and three male guests.

The local police chief said the occupants had gone to bed about an hour before the fire was called into authorities. “There was no issue that the occupants were aware of in the house when they went to bed,” he said, basing his comments on interviews with the four survivors.

At least two of the occupants jumped through a window to safety after realizing that the house was engulfed in flames–which shows just how quickly this fire had spread. In fact, the first firefighters to respond to the emergency tried to get into the house, but were forced back by heat and flames.

One victim was found on the second floor of the house, one was downstairs and the third was under “considerable collapsed debris,” the police chief said. The four survivors were taken to a hospital, where they were treated and released. They were treated for minor smoke inhalation and other minor injuries and were able to speak to police.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, though the fire chief said the fire is believed to have started in the rear of the first floor. It is not yet know if the house had working smoke detectors.

There are lessons for all of us to learn from this tragedy.

First, everyone in a house should know where all the exits are–including windows–in the room where they will sleep. If a fire happens overnight, there are only seconds left to think and act. It is critical to know where the windows are in a room, because by the time people realize there is a fire, it might have spread too far through the house for occupants to safely escape through a door.

Second, if there is smoke in the air, you must immediately get down on the floor and move towards the door or window with your face as close to the floor as possible. During a fire, the cleanest, safest air to breathe is down at floor level. If you stand up, it takes only one or two breaths of smoky air (which is filled with poisonous gases such as hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide) to make you unconscious and unable to escape.

Third, occupants should make sure that there are working smoke detectors inside their house or apartment–it does not matter if the occupants own the place or rent it. While the owner of a house or apartment has the legal obligation to install smoke detectors, and would have legal liability if any occupant suffered third degree burns or smoke inhalation from a fire where there were no smoke detectors, the occupants should be proactive about fire safety too. So make sure there are smoke detectors near the kitchen and in the hallways near the bedrooms–and also make sure that each one has a working battery.

Smoke detectors save many lives each year–especially during overnight fires. So make it your job to have working smoke alarms inside the place where you live.

If you or someone you know suffers an injury such as third degree burns or smoke inhalation, you should call Kramer & Pollack LLP in Mineola, New York so that the personal injury attorneys in that firm can determine whether another party has legal liability for injury suffered, and if the injured party has a strong legal case.