Firefighter Battling Flame
(Credit: Ted Horowitz / Getty Images)

The mother of a volunteer firefighter killed during a March 2021 fire at a New York assisted living community has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the facility owners, former employees, city building inspectors and two rabbis.

Sabrail Davenport is suing Evergreen Court Home for Adults’ owners, the Schonberger family; former Executive Director Denise Kerr; former employee Emmanual Lema; Spring Valley Building Department head Wayne Ballard and Chief Inspector Ray Canario; and Rabbis Nathaniel and Aaron Sommer. 

Schonberger family attorney Lee Vartan with Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC told McKnight’s Senior Living that while the Schonberger family mourns the loss of Lloyd, “they are not responsible, in any way, for his death.”

“Mr. Lloyd lost his life, and the facility was destroyed, not because anything the Schonberger family did or failed to do, but rather because of historic water pressure issues that hampered the fire department in its response with tragic results,” Vartan said on behalf of the Schonberger family.

The deadly fire, which killed Davenport’s son, Jared Lloyd, as well as a resident, allegedly was tied to the Passover practice of torch-cleaning ovens.

The lawsuit, filed in New York State Supreme Court, argues that the village, its inspectors and the owners and employees of the assisted living community “caused, created dangerous, defective, unsafe and hazardous conditions,” according to the Rockland / Westchester Journal News. Davenport is seeking undisclosed financial compensation for emotional and psychological loss and punitive damages.

The Sommers, who reportedly conducted the pre-Passover ritual for years in the region to make commercial kitchens kosher for the religious holiday, pleaded not guilty to multiple felony charges in connection to the fire, including second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, fourth-degree arson, second-degree reckless endangerment and three assaults.

The rabbis are accused of violating multiple state fire safety regulations, including not having permits to use high-powered torches and requesting that the community’s fire alarm system be taken offline during the cleaning.

An attorney for the rabbis asked a Rockland County Court judge to dismiss the indictments against them.

Richland District Attorney Thomas Walsh reached agreements with former employees Kerr and Lema to resolve their charges, according to the media outlet. The two testified before a grand jury in the case against the rabbis. The Schoenbergers have not been charged criminally.

Criminal charges are pending against Ballard and Canario of the building department for filing false reports on fire inspections. Misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records were dismissed. Both have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Life safety best practices

National consulting firm Fire and Life Safety President Stan Szpytek, a former deputy fire chief and fire marshal, told McKnight’s Senior Living that all senior living communities should follow the best practice of having a fire watch policy in place in the event that a fire protection system is shut down or compromised. A fire watch, he explained, involves having a dedicated person to conduct rounds and place a building on high alert. 

“Having a robust fire watch policy to accommodate times when fire protection systems are compromised is an essential operational component,” Szpytek said. 

Compliance for compliance’s sake is a mistake, he added.

“Compliance, when it comes to life safety, equates to safety and readiness,” Szpytek said. “The reality is, when you circumvent rules, when you cut corners, when you don’t comply with life safety and fire codes, that’s when you are most vulnerable for a fire or some type of loss.”

Szpytek encouraged senior living providers to have a proactive relationship with the local fire department, which can train staff members to provide a more controlled situation in the event of a fire or life safety emergency.

“The first time local responders are walking in your building shouldn’t be when it’s on fire,” he said.