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Building owner’s negligence caused fatal apartment fire: daughter
San Francisco County
Superior Court of San Francisco County, San Francisco
other-death; other-unconsciousness; pulmonary/respiratory-smoke inhalation
Wrongful Death; Premises Liability – Apartment, Tenant’s Injury, Negligent Assembly or Installation
Aurora Belo and Maria Lourdes Ramona S. Belo v. Bally Hallinan Properties; BallyHallinan Properties; BallyHallinan Family LLC; BallyHallinan Family Limited Partnership, a partnership; Shane Hallinan, individually, and as a partner of Bally Hallinan Properties, BallyHallinan Properties, BallyHallinan Family LLC, and BallyHallinan Family Limited Partnership; Matthew Hallinan, individually, and as a partner of Bally Hallinan Properties, BallyHallinan Properties, BallyHallinan Family LLC, and BallyHallinan Family Limited Partnership; Michael Anthony Caudillo; and Does 1-100, and each of them,
May 7, 2018
Aurora Belo ,
Estate of Maria Lourdes Ramona S. Belo (Female, 55 Years)
Conor M. Kelly;
Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger;
Aurora Belo, Estate of Maria Lourdes Ramona S. Belo ■ Andje M. Medina;
Altair Law LLP;
Aurora Belo, Estate of Maria Lourdes Ramona S. Belo
John Loud; P.E., C.F.E.I.; Electrical; Menlo Park,
CA called by:
Conor M. Kelly, Andje M. Medina ■ Robert Griswold; C.R.E., C.P.M.; Property Management; San Diego,
CA called by:
Conor M. Kelly, Andje M. Medina
Michael Anthony Caudillo,
Bally Hallinan Family LLC,
Bally Hallinan Properties,
Bally Hallinan Family Limited Partnership
David S. Webster;
Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman LLP;
Shane Hallinan, Matthew Hallinan, Michael Anthony Caudillo, Bally Hallinan Family LLC, Bally Hallinan Properties, Bally Hallinan Family Limited Partnership ■ Sarah E. Fama;
Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman LLP;
Shane Hallinan, Matthew Hallinan, Michael Anthony Caudillo, Bally Hallinan Family LLC, Bally Hallinan Properties, Bally Hallinan Family Limited Partnership
CA called by:
David S. Webster, Sarah E. Fama ■ Bryan Spitulski;
CA called by:
David S. Webster, Sarah E. Fama ■ Daniel Bornstein;
CA called by:
David S. Webster, Sarah E. Fama ■ Steven Reed;
Cause & Origin;
ID called by:
David S. Webster, Sarah E. Fama
On the night of June 29, 2014, plaintiff’s decedent Maria Lourdes Ramona S. Belo, known as “Lorraine Belo,” 55, a former hotel concierge, was home at her 300-square-foot studio apartment, in a 40-unit building at 627 Taylor St., in San Francisco, when a fire started in her hallway closet and quickly spread to her living space, causing her front door to be engulfed in flames. It is unknown whether she was awake or asleep when the fire started. The San Francisco Fire Department responded to the apartment building and found Belo on her kitchen floor, right beneath a window that served as an access point to her fire escape. Belo was unconscious from smoke inhalation. She died several days later. The decedent’s daughter, Aurora Belo, sued a family run corporation that owned the building and rented the apartment to her mother, Bally Hallinan Family LLC, which was doing business as Bally Hallinan Properties, formerly known as Bally Hallinan Family Limited Partnership, and erroneously sued as Bally Hallinan Properties. Michael Caudillo, Matthew Hallinan and Shane Hallinan were also initially named as defendants in the complaint, but they were dismissed prior to trial. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that Bally Hallinan had owned the subject building since the 1930s and that the fire started because of a negligently installed electrical outlet in the decedent’s closet. Counsel argued that the outlet had been added to the electrical system approximately 10 to 20 years before the fire and that this type of electrical addition required a permit and should have been performed by a qualified electrician. However, no permit was obtained for the installation and Bally Hallinan had no records showing who installed the outlet. The plaintiff’s experts testified that the subject electrical outlet was ungrounded — meaning that there was no ground wire that would trip the circuit breaker in the event of an electrical short — and that it was installed in a careless manner with loose, resistive wiring. The experts also opined that the faulty wiring caused the electrical outlet to overheat and start the fire. Plaintiff’s counsel noted that the fire department’s arson investigator determined that the fire was electrical in nature. Defense counsel denied the fire was electrical. Based on photographs of the outlet, the defense’s experts opined that it was grounded. They also opined that the fire damage in and around the outlet suggested that it was attacked externally by fire, rather than being the source of the fire. The defense experts did not put forth an alternative fire cause, but defense counsel questioned the mental condition of the decedent throughout trial and suggested that she had intentionally started the fire herself. Defense counsel contended that the decedent was a hoarder and that she contributed to her own death as a result of her hoarding. Counsel also presented evidence that the common area fire equipment was inspected and approved by the San Francisco Fire Department days before the fire and that the department inferred that a unit smoke detector was installed by Bally Hallinan. In addition, defense counsel presented photographs taken immediately after the fire, which showed numerous large boxes throughout the small studio apartment, and noted that the fire department described the subject closet as having personal possessions stacked waste high. Plaintiff’s counsel countered that Bally Hallinan’s employees had been in the decedent’s unit numerous times, but never concluded that it was a fire hazard. Counsel also presented witnesses who testified that the apartment always had a clear path of travel from the living area to the front door and kitchen, where the decedent was found. However, defense counsel contended that Bally Hallinan never entered or inspected the closet before the fire.
Lorraine Belo suffered severe smoke inhalation and was rendered unconscious. She was transported to a hospital, where she remained for nine days before dying from complications associated with smoke inhalation. Plaintiff’s counsel elicited undisputed testimony that it takes only a few seconds for someone to be overcome by smoke in a fire. The decedent’s daughter, Aurora Belo, who was 29 years old at the time of her mother’s death, sought recovery of $5 million in non-economic damages for the loss of her mother’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support. Since Aurora Belo was financially independent from her mother, she did not make a claim for economic damages. Defense counsel strongly disputed the Aurora Belo’s damages, arguing that she was not entitled to any damages for the loss of her mother. Defense counsel contended that Aurora Belo and her mother had a complex history. The decedent was a single mother at the time of Aurora Belo’s birth and that when Aurora Belo was around 2 years old, the decedent decided to send her daughter to the Philippines, where Aurora Belo could live with, and be financially supported by, her grandparents while the decedent stayed in the United States. Over the next 17 years, Aurora Belo lived primarily in the Philippines and saw her mother only every few years. During that time, Aurora Belo stayed in communication with her mother by phone and they wrote each other letters. When Aurora Belo turned 18, she came to San Francisco to live with and be closer to her mother. The two lived together in a one-bedroom apartment for almost two years before Aurora Belo, then 20 years old, decided to move out on her own for the first time in her life. She moved into an apartment in San Francisco with roommates, but she and her mother continued to have a strong relationship. In 2011, Aurora Belo and the decedent had a falling out because Aurora Belo began dating a younger man, whom the decedent viewed as unstable and not committed, and Aurora Belo relocated with him to Arizona. During the two years before the decedent passed away, Aurora Belo did not speak to her mother on the phone or exchange written communication with her, so she basically had little contact with her mother. Defense counsel also presented evidence that, approximately one year before her death, the decedent had requested a change to her lease, which prohibited all family members, including Aurora Belo, from coming to the decedent’s apartment or contacting her. Defense counsel argued that Aurora Belo was estranged from her mother and other local family members, so Aurora Belo had not lost any relationship with the decedent. During closing arguments, defense counsel argued that Aurora Belo had not suffered any damages and asked the jury to return a defense verdict. Counsel also argued that if the question of damages was reached, than no money should be awarded. In response to the complex family history, plaintiff’s counsel contended that the decedent and her daughter never stopped loving one another. Counsel pointed out that Aurora Belo and her mother had been separated previously and that they always came back together. Counsel also contended that even during the two-year period when they did not talk, Aurora Belo and the decedent loved each other and would check-in on the wellbeing of the other through various family members. Plaintiff’s counsel further argued that Aurora Belo and the decedent’s relationship would have mended once Aurora Belo and her boyfriend became engaged, which occurred after the decedent’s passing.
The jury found that Bally Hallinan was negligent and that its negligence was a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s death. It also found that the decedent was negligent, but that her conduct was not a substantial factor in causing her death. The jury determined that Aurora Belo’s damages totaled $3 million, including $1.5 million for past non-economic loss and $1.5 million for future non-economic loss.
Aurora Belo: $1,500,000 Wrongful Death: Past Loss Of Society Companionship; $1,500,000 Wrongful Death: Future Loss Of Society Companionship
Garrett L. Wong
$250,000 (at mandatory settlement conference on day of trial)
$150,000 (at mandatory settlement conference on day of trial)
12-0 (negligence of Bally Hallinan); 11-1 (damages and no causation as to the decedent); 10-2 (causation as to Bally Hallinan); 9-3 (negligence of the decedent)
7 male/ 5 female
Defense counsel moved for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The motions were both denied. The plaintiff obtained a judgment in excess of her C.C.P. § 998 offer, and will recover prejudgment interest on the entire verdict and post-offer expert fees.
This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiffs’ and defense counsel.