Tenants of fire-gutted apartment sue owners, elevator company

Michael Gethers/File
The corner of Telegraph and Haste after an apartment building was demolished due to the November 2011 fire.

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Tenants of the Haste Street apartment complex gutted by a fire last November are suing the building’s owners and an elevator repair company for punitive damages as the owners respond with their own lawsuit against additional defendants.

On Tuesday, the building’s owners filed their own suit against Paramount Elevator Corp. and Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The cross-complaint alleges negligence by Paramount in installing elevator equipment and also names PG&E as supplying electric power that exceeded the elevator’s voltage on the night of the fire.

The devastating Nov. 18 fire destroyed the 39-unit apartment complex located at 2441 Haste St. and the two restaurants located on the bottom level. Though none of the building’s 68 tenants was injured, all were displaced from their homes and lost their possessions in the fire, including many beloved pets

Forty-one former tenants who lost all of their belongings in the fire are suing Kenneth Ent and the Ent family trust as well as Paramount Elevator Corp.

In their suit, the plaintiffs say the building had “numerous substandard, non-code compliant and unhealthy conditions” before the fire. These conditions, including defective smoke detectors, a defective elevator and substandard wiring and lighting, were allegedly known by the owners but were not fixed, according to the official complaint.

“We have to prove that (the owners) were negligent,” said Mary Catherine Wiederhold, the plaintiff’s attorney. “They had a duty to the tenants as their landlords. They breached that duty by not providing habitable housing, and the cause of that breach resulted in my client’s damages.”

The seven-part complaint of the lawsuit also asks for punitive damages based on allegations that the owners knew of substandard conditions before the fire and were asked to correct them but did not.

An investigative report conducted by Berkeley Fire Department released Feb. 6 concluded that the fire was accidental and that it “originated in or around the elevator resistors” in a basement room. The report, however, was not able to determine whether the fire began due to “mechanical malfunction or improper installation of associated elevator equipment.”

The suit is currently in the discovery phase, and the attorneys for the involved parties are discussing a trial date, Wiederhold said.

“In every lawsuit filed in superior court, plaintiffs have the option of filing a jury trial or a judge trial,” Wiederhold said. “We chose a jury trial because we believe in a jury from the community.”

John Podesta, the Ents’ attorney, said that the Ents are in the process of conducting their own investigation of the fire.

Fire Cause Analysis, a private consultant hired by the building owners’ insurance company, removed the building’s elevator equipment after Berkeley Fire Department’s initial investigation “for further forensic examination.”

“Not all parties have been served and made a party to the lawsuit,” Podesta said. “Discovery will have to be conducted. The initial investigation will have to be confirmed.”

Paramount Elevator Corp. and its attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Contact Weiru Fang and Gautham Thomas at [email protected].