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A lawsuit filed by the liability insurers of a Pennsylvania continuing care retirement community against the community’s fire suppression company over a deadly 2017 fire has been kicked back to a district court to decide where the lawsuit should be heard.

After settling wrongful death lawsuits against Barclay Friends with the estates of four residents who died in the fire, Peace Church Risk Retention Group and Caring Communities filed suit in November 2019 against Johnson Controls, which maintained the community’s fire suppression system, to recover those settlements.

The US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied Johnson Controls’ motion to dismiss the case in March 2021, prompting Johnson Controls to file an appeal in September 2021. Tuesday, a three-judge 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals panel remanded the case back to the district court to determine whether the federal court is the proper venue to hear the case.

The fire

The fire at Barclay Friends, a West Chester, PA, affiliate of the Kendal Corp., destroyed the Woolman building, which included assisted living residences, dining/common areas, administrative space and the Tapestry Program for memory care residents. 

The fire started in a rear garden room, on the outdoor patio under an overhang of a building that housed residents with personal care and memory care needs. Killed in the fire were husband and wife Thomas and Delores Parker, and Mildred Gadde and Theresa Malloy, all residents of the Woolman building. Since the fire, the community upgraded its fire protection systems and procedures across its campus.

In the wake of the blaze, legislation was introduced regarding sprinklers, safety and staffing levels at senior living and care communities in Pennsylvania. Investigators, in a Jan. 31, 2019, report, said they believed the main sprinkler valve at the building was off during the fire. The cause of the fire was ruled “undetermined.” 

Civil lawsuits filed by the descendants’ estates alleged that firefighters did not have sufficient water pressure at the scene, that the building’s sprinkler system wasn’t property designed, that the main valve in the sprinkler system was shut off at the time of the fire, that the building’s alarms were not loud enough, and that an improperly built wall allowed fire to spread.

Those lawsuits were filed against Barclay Friends and Kendal Corp.; architectural firm C. Raymond David & Sons; Daniel H. Socket, Structural Engineers; Johnson Controls Fire Protection; Marco Protection Systems; Kohn Engineering; Aqua Pennsylvania; and Aqua America.

Barclay Friends demolished the building and opened the Preston building in its place in August 2020.

Insurance lawsuit

In its lawsuit against Johnson Controls, the liability insurers claim the fire protection firm was responsible for monitoring and servicing the sprinkler system, and that its negligence caused the fire and the untimely deaths of the residents.

In the lawsuit, the insurers assert that during a May 2017 repair of one defective control value, Johnson Controls closed several control valves. After the repair was complete, Johnson Controls allegedly failed to return all valves to their fully open positions, which prevented water supply from flowing through the sprinkler systems. Testing, inspections and maintenance performed in June and August 2017 again failed to notice certain control valves were not positioned to function properly, according to the suit.

The lawsuit claims negligence, gross negligence and wanton and willful misconduct; negligent misrepresentation; intentional misrepresentation and fraud; and breach of implied warranty of workmanlike services.