61 Chicago fire deaths tied to negligent property owners

May 7, 2021

The owners of apartment buildings have a responsibility to keep their premises safe for tenants. But an investigation has found that during a 5-year period, the failure of property owners to meet this responsibility and a lack of follow-up by the city resulted in 61 apartment fire deaths.

An investigation by the Better Government Association (BGA) and the Chicago Tribune probed the 140 fatal residential fires that occurred between 2014 and 2019, killing 170 people. The investigation found that in 42 of those fires, the city knew about fire safety issues in the buildings. Those issues had not been fixed at the time of the fires, which killed 61 people.

“They died in apartments the city knew lacked smoke detectors, in abandoned buildings the city was supposed to tear down, in homes where tenants had sought the city’s help because there was no heat,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

The probe found that 23 of these victims were under the age of 17.

Putting lives at risk

Some examples uncovered by the investigation:

  • 2016: In Englewood, a 56-year-old woman died in her apartment in a fire caused by faulty wiring. Tenants had reported electrical problems and a lack of smoke detectors to city officials in the weeks before.
  • 2017: In West Woodlawn, a 2-year-old girl and her 7-month-old sister were killed in a February apartment fire. The family was boiling water in the basement to keep warm when the pot melted and set nearby items ablaze. The city had received complaints that the building had no heat, but inspectors were unable to gain entry.
  • 2018: In Little Village, a 63-year-old man died in a blaze in a two-story building. The city had received complaints of overcrowding and missing fire alarms. Investigators found no smoke alarms and the front stairs had been blocked by rooming house partitions. They called the building a “death trap.”

The BGA and the Tribune interviewed more than 100 firefighters, safety experts, city officials, and family members of fire victims during their investigation and examined tens of thousands of pages of public records.

They found that tenants spent years living in unsafe conditions that had been reported to the city. Landlords promised to make repairs, but city lawyers and hearing officers seemed to simply take them at their word. City inspectors closed hundreds of complaints despite little or no follow-up to ensure repairs were made. City Hall lawsuits against negligent landlords stalled in court.

In nine of the blazes, fire investigation reports listed unaddressed fire safety issues identified by the Tribune and the BGA as potential causes. And in another 24 of the fatal fires, the probe found that the city had been warned about fire safety issues – and that if those issues had been fixed, lives could have been saved.

Fighting to get justice for victims

Overall, the investigation found unaddressed safety issues and lenient enforcement by the city both played a role in the deadly fires.

At Coplan + Crane, our experienced premises liability lawyers have a track record of holding negligent property owners accountable. We know how to investigate fires and other property accidents to build strong cases. And we don’t rest until we recover financial compensation for victims and their families.

If you’ve been hurt or a loved one was killed in an accident caused by a property owner’s negligence, contact us to schedule a free consultation.