Owner of Ash Street Place apartments sued

Monday, May 6, 2013 | 10:25 p.m. CDT; updated 11:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 7, 2013

COLUMBIA — A resident of Ash Street Place apartments has sued the complex's owner in connection with a fire that resulted in the loss of his belongings, as well as the place he lived.

On April 9, the 66-unit apartment building on North Stadium Boulevard, which is owned by St. Louis-based Mills Properties, caught fire because of a faulty fixture in the bathroom of Apartment 314, according to an investigation by the Columbia Fire Department.

None of the residents from Building 103, where the fire took place, are allowed to move back in, said Melissa DeCicco, marketing manager of Mills Properties, earlier. DeCicco said residents were not allowed to enter the building and remove their belongings when a toxic level of asbestos was discovered. 

Mark Farnen, a spokesman for Mills Properties, said the building, like many built before 1981, contained asbestos that was safely sealed. The fire, water from firehoses and the rain that followed uncovered the asbestos and made it toxic.

The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiff, Ryan Freeman, a graduate student at MU who lived in an apartment in the building that caught fire, would not have signed a lease with Mills Properties if he'd known the building was out of code or that it contained asbestos.

Breathing in asbestos can lead to lung cancer and mesothelioma, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The lawsuit also cites the lack of manual fire alarms in the building. When Columbia adopted the 2009 International Fire Code in 2011, buildings that were lacking these alarms had one year from the time they were notified to install them.

Ash Street Place was still within its allotted year, and Farnen said Mills Properties was already in the process of accepting bids to install the alarms.

Of the 55 buildings in Columbia that had not installed manual alarms by April 10, Mills Properties owned 17 of them, according to data provided by the Columbia Fire Department.

Legally, management was not required to tell residents if the building did not meet the fire code.

Freeman’s attorneys — Michael Campbell and Matthew Uhrig — filed the lawsuit Thursday, and on Saturday, Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler granted a temporary restraining order so Freeman's belongings would not be destroyed unless Mills Properties provided proof that it was necessary.

Some of the allegations cited in the lawsuit are:

  • Mills Properties broke the tenant-landlord contract by not providing a safe place for Freeman to live.
  • The company failed to disclose the fact that there was asbestos in the building so Freeman would sign a lease.
  • Mills Properties falsely represented the apartments to Freeman as a safe place to live.
  • The company did not take the proper steps to ensure Ash Street Place was a safe place to live and inform Freeman about any unsafe conditions prior to his signing a lease.
  • The company took control of Freeman's property and wouldn't allow him to take it back because of the claim of asbestos exposure.

Farnen said he couldn’t comment on pending lawsuits, but he said Mills Properties has worked to make Ash Street Place increasingly safe since it purchased it in 2010. He said the management installed smoke detectors in every bedroom and increased the number of fire extinguishers in the halls. He said it also installed security cameras and a fence.

“We’re recognized by the City of Columbia for the reduction in the number of calls for the amount of crime,” he said.

Farnen also said the asbestos in the building wasn’t a safety issue while residents were living there.

“The buildings all passed inspection in 2010 when the property was sold to Mills,” he said. “When (asbestos) is sealed, it’s safe."

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages, in addition to compensation for the value of the property Freeman says he lost in the fire.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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