County, city can be sued over Loop fireJudge backs families of high-rise victims
Thursday, March 29, 2007
by Michael Higgins
Both Chicago and Cook County can be sued for their roles in the fatal high-rise fire in 2003 that killed six office workers at the Cook County Administration Building, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Lawyers for the city and county had argued that as governmental entities, both had special legal immunities that prevented them from being sued in connection with the Loop fire.
But Circuit Judge William Maddux sided with lawyers for the victims' families, who argued that the plaintiffs' allegations -- if proven at trial -- could overcome those normal immunities.
Maddux noted, for example, that the plaintiffs allege a firefighter ordered fleeing office workers back up into a locked stairwell, which soon filled with smoke.
"The egregious evidence provided to this court, if proven, establishes that the city may have showed an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the plaintiffs' safety on Oct. 17, 2003," Maddux wrote.
City and county officials had asked Maddux to dismiss them from about 20 lawsuits stemming from the fire. Officials for both said Wednesday that they were reviewing the decision and whether to appeal.
At a hearing before Maddux on Friday, lawyers for the city argued that the city's legal immunity for injuries that occur while it is fighting fires dates to 1883.
They said stripping away that immunity would leave the city -- and by extension, the taxpayers -- open to big jury verdicts that would drain money that could be spent on public safety.
"We're disappointed with the decision," Law Department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle said Wednesday. "It is something that concerns us. We think the immunities .
. are important not just for the city of Chicago, but for all municipalities."
A lawyer for the county, Pete Skiko of Chicago, said, "We obviously disagree with the judge's ruling and we're evaluating our options."
Lawyers for the city and county could ask Maddux for permission to appeal his ruling immediately, rather than wait until after a trial is completed. Maddux would decide whether to grant that request.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the plaintiffs hailed the decision, saying it would allow them to present all the facts of the case to a jury.
"It's extremely critical," said Tom Prindable, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "We feel the whole story would not be told without the city and the county" as defendants.
Other defendants include the building management company and two security firms.
The plaintiffs' lawyers say the city's mistakes include poor communication by 911 operators and firefighters' failure to designate one stairwell for firefighting and one for evacuation.
They allege that the county, as the building's owner, failed to maintain safe stairwells with proper emergency phones.
The fire started inside a storage room in a secretary of state's office suite, but the cause remains in dispute.