The families of the four victims that died in the high-rise Marco Polo fire filed a lawsuit today alleging that the deaths could have been prevented if the defendants had followed basic safety measures.
The complaint, filed in First Circuit Court in Honolulu, is against the management companies of Marco Polo, the Association of Apartment Owners of the Marco Polo Apartments and Ohana Control Systems. The plaintiffs in the case are the estates of the deceased Marco Polo victims and Community Kokua Foundation for Fire Safety and Recovery, a nonprofit organization created by their families. Three law firms are representing the plaintiffs including: Leavitt, Yamane and Soldner; Revere & Associates; and Davis Levin Livingston.
The wrongful death and negligence suit is the first major legal action since the July 14, 2017 conflagration. The defendants could not be reached for an immediate comment on the litigation.
The 568-unit building, at 2333 Kapiolani Blvd., was built in 1971 before the city began requiring sprinkler systems. The blaze killed Britt Reller, 54; his mother, 87-year-old Jean Dilley; and their neighbors Joann M. Kuwata, 71; and 81-year-old Marilyn Van Gieson, who died from fire-related complications on Aug. 3.
Legal team alleges Marco Polo safety shortcomings
The plaintiffs’ attorneys allege that despite experiencing prior fires at Marco Polo and receiving warnings about the need to improve safety, the defendants made poor choices, including:
>> Permitting widespread use of propped-open fire doors, which allowed fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.
>> Allowing most Marco Polo units to go without smoke detectors.
>> Rigging the fire alarm system to run through an antiquated alarm panel to avoid having to comply with city building and fire codes.
>> Failing to invest in a fire alarm system that could be monitored by the Honolulu Fire Department.
>> Allowing the fire alarm to fall into such disrepair that many residents could not hear it.
>> Not maintaining or configuring the elevator system so that it would allow firefighters to access floors during the fire.
>> Failing to install an emergency lighting system provided adequate light.
>> Choosing not to fund a fire sprinkler system that would run throughout most of the building.
It took firefighters more than four hours to extinguish the blaze, one of the most destructive in Honolulu history. The fire caused about $107 million in damages, and affected 200 of the building’s units, including 30 that were destroyed, mostly on the 26th through 28th floors.
About 130 firefighters responded to the 7-alarm fire. In October 2017, investigators ruled that the official cause of the fire was “undetermined” because of “extensive damage” in unit 2602, where the blaze began.
According to the lawsuit, the four victims “either burned to death or died from massive smoke inhalation as they were trapped after the fire spread from the unit origin.”
Dawn Dunbar, Joann Kuwata’s niece, said, “I don’t think people quite understand the extent of something this horrific, until they actually go through it and lose a loved one.”
The lawsuit alleges that the property managers, most notably Associa Hawaii and the Marco Polo Association of Apartment Owners, chose not to implement safety measures that would have brought the tower into compliance with fire and building codes.
Phil Reller, the son of Dilley and brother Britt Reller, said “Associa is the largest condo tower management company in the world. If they don’t know what needs to be done to prevent people from dying in their building, who does? They did not act on recommendations.”
Reller said Associa and the other defendants allowed building residents to use louvered doors, which allowed the fire to spread rapidly instead of being contained by fire-resistant doors. They also chose not to install fire sprinklers, which can help contain fires.
”They didn’t do anything to amend the inadequate ‘fire prevention’ system that was in place — even after three fires over the last six years. Condo fires will happen; it’s a part of the nature of condo towers,” he said. “The defendants had a duty to advise the condo residents how to best prevent them.”
Reller said the defendants’ negligence also put emergency responders at risk.
“They were asked to go into an unsafe situation to take care of people in a situation that was entirely preventable,” Reller said. “They put their lives at risk because of greed and neglect. After the fire, the (AOAO) found the money to install sprinklers. They had it all along.”
Reller said the nonprofit aims to provide a vehicle to address community fire safety and the dearth of available assistance available to fire victims.
“We need to figure out a way to address the costs when we’re talking about saving and protecting lives,” Dunbar said. “Let’s make sure this does not happen again, ever.”