Can I file a personal injury suitif I was severely burned due to a faulty smoke detector?

I was visiting my cousin; she stays in a government assisted apartment. We were cooking and she had to step out for a minute. A fire broke out on the stove under a pot of grease. I was not aware at first that this had started since the smoke detector did not go off. Another visitor noticed the flames and brought it to my attention. By this time the fire was pretty big blocking me from turning the burner off. Everyone rushed into the kitchen and started trying to put it out. We didn’t have any salt so someone tried to smother it with a coat. It didn’t work out too well and when he went to pull the coat back the pot fell on the floor and the fire and grease splashed onto me. I was on fire for about 5 seconds. I was severely burned on my right hand and forearm, my left forearm, my right side, and both of my legs. We finally found some cornmeal and put the fire out with that. The apartment was filled with smoke to the point we were coughing but still the smoke detector was not alarming. I ran outside and shouted for someone to call 911 and called my boyfriend to take me to the ER. I am severely burned and cannot work now. I have to go to the burn center where they are talking about possibly doing skin grafts on my right hand. I know that in government assisted housing they do inspections frequently. They are supposed to make sure that all smoke detectors are working properly. The battery was fine cause it makes a beeping noise when the battery is taken out or dies so I feel the detector was faulty. Is there anyway I can take this to court and get reimbursement for my medical bills?

Asked on October 24, 2011 under Personal Injury, Virginia


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 9 years ago | Contributor

Probably you can't sue.

First, you'd have to establish that the building management failed somehow--did not inspect the smoke detector, for example. But if they were inspecting it at appropriate intervals and it passed inspection last time, they are not at fault. Also, you'd have to show that they could have detected the problem at their inspection--if this was a problem that would no show during a standard inspection, again, they would not be liable.

Second, your injury was NOT caused simply be there being a fire. There was an intervening cause--the person who knocked the pot over with his coat and splashed you. When there is an intervening cause, it may be that only the person responsible for the intervening cause--the person who splashed you--would be liable; that might be the person to sue.

Third, it may be that you contributed to your own injury, which would reduce or possibly eliminate your ability to recover compensation, since you tried to put the fire out with unsuitable materials, rather than calling the fire department.

Given the extent of your injuries and the possible costs, it would be worthwhile for you to consult with a personal injury attorney in person about the case, but you need to be prepared that, based on what you write, you may not be entitled to compensation.

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