More residents join Ash Street fire lawsuit, obtain restraining order

Monday, May 13, 2013 | 5:41 p.m. CDT; updated 7:26 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 14, 2013

COLUMBIA — Nine new plaintiffs have joined a lawsuit against the owner of a Columbia apartment complex that caught fire on April 9, and 16 more residents have received a temporary restraining order against the company.

The fire, caused by a faulty light fixture, and subsequent rain made a 66-unit building in the Ash Street Place complex uninhabitable. St. Louis-based Mills Properties, which owns the building, told residents it had found toxic levels of asbestos in Building 103 and couldn't allow them to recover most of their belongings. The company said previously that residents couldn't move back in for an undetermined about of time.

At a hearing Monday, Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler granted the restraining order and amended the lawsuit to add new plaintiffs. The initial lawsuit, with one plaintiff, Ryan Freeman, was filed on May 2 by Ashland attorney Matt Uhrig. Oxenhandler granted Freeman a temporary restraining order on May 4 to stop Mills Properties from destroying his belongings.

According to the lawsuit, Freeman was informed that most of his property would be destroyed. Mark Farnen, a spokesman for Mills Properties, said the company never told residents it would destroy property without their consent.

Mills Properties, represented by attorney David Dick, consented to Monday's restraining order. The order stops the company from disposing of any belongings, Farnen said.

Mills Properties can keep residents' personal belongings in their apartment or move them to a storage unit, according to the restraining order. The residents can't be charged for moving or storing their property.

Asbestos is present in many buildings because it was commonly used in construction materials until the 1980s. Asbestos is safe when property sealed. Once exposed, however — such as by fire or rain — inhaled asbestos can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma. Ash Street Place was built between 1965 and 1968, Farnen said.

Freeman’s lawsuit alleges that Mills Properties created an unsafe living environment because it didn't tell residents there was asbestos in the building.

Farnen said in a previous interview that asbestos wasn't an issue while residents lived in the building because it was sealed.

The lawsuit also alleges that Mills Properties didn't perform testing to prove that residents' belongings were contaminated by asbestos. Residents who went into their apartments after the fire said they saw little to no damage, but still weren't allowed to get their belongings, the lawsuit alleges.

"The way you check you asbestos is not by a visible check," Farnen said. "You do it by air quality testing. Immediately after the fire, there was no indication that there had been breakage or exposure to the asbestos. We can't definitely say there wasn't asbestos and we want to be, in our minds, safe.

On Thursday, Uhrig filed a request to add Weston American, Inc. as a defendant to the case. According to the motion, Weston American, Inc. has been entering residents' apartments and is working with Mills Properties to keep residents from their belongings.

Weston American Inc., which also does business as United Services of St. Louis, focuses on disaster relief, according to its website. Representatives from the company couldn't be reached.

The lawsuit also alleges that Mills Properties should have informed residents that the building lacked manual, pull-down fire alarms. The building didn't have the alarms, which became mandatory when Columbia adopted the 2009 International Fire Code in 2011. The Columbia Fire Department gave apartment complexes one year to comply, and Mills Properties, which was informed on Nov. 21, still had seven months to install alarms when the fire occurred.

Marketing manager Melissa DeCicco said in a previous interview that the company  was gathering bids to install the alarms.

Of the 55 buildings in Columbia that hadn't installed manual alarms by April 10, Mills Properties owns 17 of them, according to data from the Columbia Fire Department.

The lawsuit is seeking punitive damages in addition to compensation for what residents lost in the fire.

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