Allegations in Britt family's wrongful-death suit denied in response

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 | 9:45 p.m. CDT; updated 8:20 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 28, 2014

COLUMBIA — Attorneys for the UM System Board of Curators rejected several allegations Lt. Bruce Britt's family lodged against the university in a wrongful-death lawsuit involving a walkway collapse at an MU-operated complex.

Employees of the university believed University Village apartments were "structurally sound and safe at all relevant times," according to the response, which also challenged the Britt family's ability to sue because of sovereign immunity and the "Fireman's Rule."

Britt’s wife, Leigh Britt, and his daughter Stormy Britt filed the suit against the curators in March after Bruce Britt's death, according to previous Missourian reporting. Britt died from injuries he received while trying to evacuate the University Village apartments after a walkway collapsed Feb. 22.

In the lawsuit, the Britt family alleges that Britt’s death was caused by dangerous conditions at the University Village apartments. The lawsuit states that the university "acted recklessly and with wanton negligence when it failed to properly maintain and/or construct the Apartments and failed to correct the dangerous condition on its property."

The university's May 12 response to the lawsuit denies some of the Britt family's claims and offers several defenses. It also raises the following arguments:

  • Employees didn't know the apartments were unsafe: Although the Britt family's lawsuit alleges that MU knew the buildings at the University Village apartments were unsafe, the response states that MU employees believed it "to be structurally sound and safe at all relevant times." The response also denies the lawsuit's allegations that Britt's death "was the direct and proximate result of" the university's "failure to correct the dangerous condition on its property."
  • Sovereign immunity: The response states that the university "is a public, governmental entity" and is, therefore, "entitled to sovereign immunity and the limitations on liability and damages as established" in state law. The Britt family's lawsuit states that the university's "sovereign immunity for torts has been waived" by the defendants "because, upon information and belief, Defendant Curators has purchased insurance coverage to cover a loss such as Plaintiffs." The curators' response denies that allegation.
  • The "Fireman's Rule": The response states that because Britt "was a firefighter killed while performing his duties in response to an emergency call," the plaintiffs "cannot recover in tort for the alleged negligence of the owners and occupiers of the property upon which their decedent suffered injury under the 'Fireman's Rule' established by Missouri courts." According to a 1994 article in the Missouri Law Review, "The firefighter’s rule bars injured firefighters and police officers from recovering against individuals whose ordinary negligence created the situation that required the presence of the officer or firefighter." The article states that "the firefighter's rule applies only in emergency situations."

About 4:15 a.m. Feb. 22, Ghazwan Alwan, an MU student, woke up to a loud crashing noise and saw the balcony walkway at his building — Building 707 — had partially collapsed. He called 911, and Columbia firefighters arrived about three minutes later and began to evacuate residents from the building.

As Britt was helping with the evacuation, the walkway collapsed underneath him. He was sent to University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead later that morning.

The complex was constructed in 1956, and according to previous Missourian reporting, MU housing staff was aware of cosmetic and structural problems with the walkways before the collapse and had discussed potential repairs to them. An MU housing plan released in 2008 stated that the complex was "in poor condition" and that "renovation is not a reasonable alternative."

The Britt family's wrongful-death lawsuit, which was submitted to the 13th Circuit Court of Boone County, seeks $25,000 in damages. According to previous Missourian reporting, Rick Barry, the plaintiff's attorney, said he expects that amount to "significantly" increase during the case.

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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Ellis Smith May 28, 2014 | 6:36 a.m.

If I read an article in this newspaper correctly the building in question was new in 1956, a year after I graduated from the university's campus known today as Missiouri University of Science and Technology.

I was 23 years old at that time; today, I am 81. You do the math: man made structures do not, as a rule, improve with age. As also covered in this newspaper, the building inspection "system" employed by the university was at best marginal for effectiveness.

I don't know anything about Fireman's Rule, but it seems to me that if the university is wise it will attempt to settle this matter out of court for some reasonable sum.

We obviously can't bring back this firefighter, but as I have been posting it looks like the university needs to review various policies (consider, for example the one for addressing sexual assaults) to test their current validity and effectiveness, and that always needs to be done at all four campuses.

PROactive, not REactive.

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