When a litigation attorney succeeds in attaining a monetary settlement for a client, it’s an obvious victory for both parties. There are, however, other types of legal victories, some not so obvious.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania provided Siegel Brill shareholder Elliot Olsen with that type of victory earlier this year. By simply refusing to review an appeal by his opponents in a civil lawsuit venued in Bedford, Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court ensured that Pennsylvania’s residential renters will be safer for decades to come.

Elliot represents surviving family members who brought suit against three landlords after a fire in rural Bedford County caused the deaths of three people. The facts of the case:

Elliot began building his case by bringing in experts to investigate the aftermath. Attorneys for the defense did the same. “Everybody literally combed through the wreckage of this home after the fire marshal and law enforcement were done with it,” Elliot said. No one was able to determine what caused the fire.

“We could tell the fire started in a back-porch area, a three-season porch, where they had a refrigerator and washer/dryer,” he said. “But we weren’t able to tie the fire to anything specific, like faulty wiring or a faulty appliance. So the only theory that we could proceed on was the negligent failure of the landlords to install smoke alarms.”

Elliot has retained an expert who will testify that the installation of smoke alarms would have prevented the deaths. “Our expert can show that the levels of carbon monoxide in the decedents’ blood were high, meaning that they were alive for a while, breathing in smoke,” Elliot said. “All three people were out of bed when they died. If smoke alarms had been installed, they would have been awakened earlier and could have escaped the building safely.”

In 2015, however, Elliot’s case was dismissed by the Bedford County Court in a two-part ruling:

  1. The court stated that the plaintiffs had no claim based on a common law assertion that the owners were negligent in failing to install smoke alarms. (Common law being the part of state law that is derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.)
  2. The two-year statute of limitations had passed in regard to a filing of negligence per se on the part of the owners. (Negligence per se is a doctrine within U.S. law under which an act is considered negligent because it violates a statute or regulation.)

It was a setback for Elliot and the plaintiffs but later in 2015, Elliot appealed to the state’s intermediate appellate court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which ruled that the plaintiffs could indeed proceed with their assertion that the owners had a responsibility to provide smoke alarms. “The court basically said that there is a common law duty on the part of landlords to install smoke alarms,” Elliot said.

Not surprisingly, the defendants appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court “denied review,” however, returning the case back to trial court for further proceedings.

“It was a big win because there were three deaths in a fire, and the case had been dismissed, so we’d lost at the trial-court level,” Elliot said. The decisions by the Superior and Supreme Courts will surely help Elliot’s case. A trial date has now been set for 2018, and that may provide the impetus for a settlement.

Further – and just as important – the decision provides a touchstone for both residential renters and future fire victims in Pennsylvania. “We do not yet have final victory,” Elliot said. “But it is rewarding to know that the onus is now on Pennsylvania landlords to ensure that their rental properties have the proper number of smoke alarms.”