A court in Washington, D.C., was tasked to decide if a malfunctioning fire alarm should yield punitive damages against a residential building’s management company. The plaintiff, who was trapped in his apartment for five days in the aftermath of a fire, filed suit against the management company. The suit included a claim for compensation to punish the defendant.

The management company filed a motion for summary judgment and contended otherwise. The defendant maintained that any issue with the alarm was not causally linked to the plaintiff’s injuries and that it did not possess the requisite state of mind to receive a punitive award.

While the court indicated the question was reasonably close, it could not at this point foreclose such a verdict and thus denied the motion. The plaintiff, who was confined in the apartment with minimal food, asserted four counts against the management company in an amended complaint:

  • Count 1 alleged three types of negligent acts — failing to maintain the fire alarms and smoke detectors; failing to secure the building from trespassers who could cause a fire; and, inaccurately informing government officials that all residents had been evacuated.
  • Count 2 alleged negligence per se and relates to fire alarms only.
  • Count 3 was for negligent infliction of emotional distress and essentially reiterated the claims in Count 1.
  • Count 4 is titled “Punitive Damages” even though this should be a remedy, not a stand-alone count.

The owner of the building was not included in the case. The defendant moved for summary judgment on punitive damages only. In its motion, the defendant set forth two positions: “There is no evidence 1) that any alleged act or omission by the defendant for which punitive damages are asserted caused harm to plaintiff or 2) that Defendant acted maliciously.”

The plaintiff acknowledged the only basis for punitive damages related to the defendant’s handling of the alarm system. The plaintiff sought punitive damages against the defendant for its failure to maintain an operable fire alarm system, which is required by fire code in the District of Columbia.

In Snow v. Capitol Terrace, Inc., 602 A.2d 121 (D.C. 1992), the D.C. Court of Appeals set forth the law of the District of Columbia: “Punitive damages may be assessed against a corporation if (1) the act of the corporate employee was intentional, malicious or willful, and (2) the corporation through its officers or directors participated in the doing of the wrongful act or authorized or subsequently ratified the offending conduct with full knowledge of the facts.”

The plaintiff pointed to a June 2017 inspection of the system, which found deficiencies in the alarm and life-safety systems and “recommended a fire watch to enhance fire protection protocols until the system was repaired.”

No such fire watch was implemented. In addition, a fire sprinkler and alarm dealer was engaged in December 2017 to perform a further inspection. The company identified six different deficiencies, including inoperable horns, an inoperable display screen on the panel and that the system was not being monitored off-site.

The defendant was aware the system was out of compliance with the D.C. code, in part because the code requires off-site monitoring. However, the monitoring contract had been terminated due to the defendant’s failure to pay the bill. This conduct, at least in concert, could be sufficient to enable the court to award punitive damages.

In its reply, the defendant took aim at the sprinkler and alarm company’s report, pointing out the deficiencies did not render the system as a whole inoperable. The specific deficiencies in the report did not relate to the second floor where the plaintiff lived or to the operability of the system overall. The defendant emphasized the plaintiff’s expert witness could not pinpoint the reason why the alarm did not sound that day.

The court asserted even if it were to discount the sprinkler and alarm company’s report, the defendant did not rebut the plaintiff’s other bases for punitive damages — namely, the failure to implement the first recommendations and the lapse in off-site monitoring. The court did not find that the two issues would likely merit a punitive award; indeed, there may have been no causal connection between them and the injuries the plaintiff suffered.

As the defendant did not sufficiently establish that to be the case, the court was not prepared to strike the request for punitive damages. At the conclusion of the plaintiff’s case — and also after the close of the evidence — the defendant is free to renew the motion.

The court, accordingly, denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.