As if they didn’t have enough to deal with after being charged with manslaughter and elder abuse in relation to a fire in one of their affordable housing projects, executives at The Amerland Group and one of the company’s subsidiaries are now being sued by two separate groups of tenants at the building.

The Casa de Vallejo, a 136-unit residential complex for the elderly in Vallejo, was engulfed in flames early in the morning on Aug. 15, 2008.

An Aug. 16 lawsuit filed by several tenants claims the San Diego company knew as early as 2006 that the fire alarm wasn’t working properly and states that the defendant’s actions amounted to elder abuse, negligence and fraud, for which the tenants are owed damages.

A second lawsuit filed by one tenant takes a similar tack and also states that Amerland employees knew that a recluse blamed for starting the fire stored oxygen tanks in his top-floor room in close proximity to where he would light and smoke cigars and drink alcohol.

The fire started when Robert Bennett either fell asleep or suffered a medical emergency while lying back in his recliner smoking a cigar and drinking.

Bennett’s cigar started a fire that spread across the room and his body to an oxygen tank he had used to help him breathe, according to the Vallejo Fire Department’s investigation. The oxygen tank exploded, blowing out the window to Bennett’s small apartment and creating a rapid influx of air that fed the fire. It quickly spread to other parts of the building.

The building’s fire alarm and safety lights never switched on during the fire, a fatal error Amerland attributes to a subcontractor who installed the alarm. Solano County prosecutors disagreed with that assessment, however, and levied felony charges against executives at Amerland and one of its subsidiaries in June.

Both of the recent lawsuits seek damages for personal injury in relation to the defective fire protection system at the building.

The second suit alleges that company employees gave Bennett his vices.

Despite this knowledge and with full knowledge that Mr. Bennett’s smoking while drinking alcohol and using medical oxygen would pose a significant risk of injury and death to other tenants, Defendants and their agents and/or employees provided Robert Bennett with alcohol and/or cigars.

Both lawsuits make mention of previous criminal charges brought against the Amerland Group in 2008 after the company allegedly failed to keep fire equipment maintained at another one of its buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

A hat-tip to the Contra Costa Times, which reported on these lawsuits last week.


Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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