A law firm that sued the developer of the downtown Da Vinci Apartments project — seeking compensation for damage to their offices from a fire that broke out in 2014 while the units were under construction at a site adjacent to where the lawyers worked — lost a round in court when a judge dismissed one claim in the firm’s lawsuit.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Sotelo heard arguments May 26 in the suit brought by Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith LLP against Geoffrey H. Palmer, and his company, GH Palmer Associates, during which Palmer sought dismissal of the law firm’s cause of action for strict liability for ultrahazardous activities.
The law firm alleged that Palmer engaged in an ultrahazardous activity by building a large, wood-framed structure in the dense urban environment of downtown Los Angeles, with significant risk of harm to neighboring property owners and tenants if a fire were to occur.
The judge took the case under submission and granted Palmer’s motion on Wednesday. In his ruling, Sotelo noted that Palmer’s lawyers argued that Lewis Brisbois could not show that the construction of the Da Vinci project was an ultrahazardous activity because the construction of wood-framed large buildings, even in urban areas like downtown Los Angeles, is common.
The judge also referenced the opinion of an architectural consultant to Palmer that 20 large buildings with apartment units similar to those of the Da Vinci project and constructed of wood-frame structures were built in Los Angeles County from 2001-16.
“The court determines this evidence could convince a (jury) that no triable issues of material fact exist as to whether the construction of the Da Vinci project — including alleged deficient safety measures — constituted ultrahazardous activity for the purposes of this strict liability cause of action,” the judge wrote.
The Dec. 8, 2014, fire destroyed the 75,000-square foot, seven-story complex then under construction alongside the Harbor (110) Freeway.
The blaze forced the closure of the freeway and the intense heat broke about 160 windows at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The law firm leased space from the city of Los Angeles in a building on Figueroa Street near where the apartments were being built, according to the suit filed in May 2016, also alleging trespass and nuisance.
“Specifically, the amount of combustible material at the Da Vince Apartments, including the wood framing, was a fire hazard that allowed for a sufficient amount of radiant heat, smoke and energy to travel across and damage LBBS offices,” the suit states.
The fire made the law offices uninhabitable and forced the attorneys to cease operations, interfering with their business, the suit states.
The developer should have known that a fire, regardless of whether it was set on purpose or not, “was a significant risk in the construction of the subject property,” the suit alleges.
The suit also alleges the apartment developer did not have a fire protection plan in place and lacked enough equipment at the site in the event of a blaze.
The law firm’s case was consolidated with other cases, including various cross-complaints, related to the Da Vinci fire.
In April 2017, Dawud Abdulwali, then 57, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting fire to the Da Vinci complex. He pleaded o contest to one count of arson and admitted to using an accelerant to start the blaze, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.