The city is free from liability in a 2010 fire on East 31st Street that claimed the lives of four people, ruled the New Jersey Supreme Court on Wednesday.
In a 5-0 ruling, the justices reversed two lower court decisions that granted “qualified immunity” to the city and its electrical inspector Robert Bierals, which would have made the city partially liable for damages.
The latest ruling grants “absolute immunity” to both the city and the inspector, according to the decision.
“The TCA grants absolute immunity from liability to public entities and their employees for injuries resulting from a failure to enforce the law,” wrote justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina referring to the state’s Tort Claims Act.
Without Wednesday’s favorable ruling municipal taxpayers could have been on the hook for millions of dollars in damages, according to officials.
The fire at the rooming house at 465 East 31st Street took place six months after Bierals discovered “improper wiring in the electrical panels” and ruled it “extremely dangerous,” according to court documents.
The city issued violation notices to the property’s owner Florence Brown. A month before the fire, the inspector visited the property, Brown told him she had not made repairs. She was told to make the repairs in two weeks.
Bierals failed to notify his direct supervisor Alfonso Del Carmen due to a dispute between the two men. Del Carmen was tasked to make the call whether to shut off electricity to the building, according to court records.
The faulty wiring caused the fire that claimed four lives – Betty Johnson, Mark Smith, Latita Buckerham, and Darrell Hammerick — and injured others. Seven lawsuits were filed against private and public entities following the fire.
Brown was charged with four counts of manslaughter for her failure to make repairs in 2012. She pleaded guilty the next year to causing widespread injury and given probation.
Bierals no longer works for the city and Del Carmen was fired last year.