The families of two people killed in an August 2019 row house fire in Northwest D.C. have filed wrongful death lawsuits totaling $300 million against the landlord and D.C. authorities, alleging a stunning pattern of negligence in the months leading up to the fire.
The two lawsuits were filed by attorneys representing the estates of 40-year-old Fitsum Kebede and 9-year-old Yafet Solomen, who both died after the fire that broke out Aug. 18, 2019, in the basement at 708 Kennedy St. NW, which had been transformed into a makeshift, unlicensed rooming house.
The landlord, James Walker, was indicted by a D.C. grand jury in January 2020 on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Kebede and Solomen, as well as 41 criminal fire and housing code violations brought by the Office of the D.C. Attorney General. Proceedings in that case have been stalled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Walker, who has pleaded not guilty, is next due in court for a status hearing in October.
The two new lawsuits — one filed Aug. 13; the other, Aug. 17 — name Walker as a defendant, along with nine identified employees of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, two named employees of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department and a dozen other unidentified District employees.
The suits allege that all the defendants failed to follow up on repeated complaints brought by a D.C. police officer who warned of serious code violations at the row house.
DCRA is responsible for regulating construction and business activity in D.C.
The lawsuits also names the District as a defendant, alleging D.C. violated Kebede’s and Solomen’s civil rights by failing to properly train building inspectors or investigate dangerous conditions at rental properties, which the lawsuit described as “nothing less than disgraceful neglect and a clear violation” of the District’s duties. (D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine were served with the lawsuit, which is standard for any suit brought against the District).
A spokeswoman for Bowser’s office said the District does not generally comment on pending litigation and referred the inquiry to DCRA and the fire department. A spokeswoman for Racine’s office said she could not comment citing the pending litigation.
The lawsuits provide tragic new details about the fire.
Solomen, the 9-year-old boy, lived with his mother in a small, windowless room in the basement of 708 Kennedy. Kebede had his own, tiny, 5-and-1/2-foot by 8-foot room.
“In order to pack as many paying tenants as possible into the property,” Walker partitioned off parts of the row house into separate, smaller rooms with drywall and two-by-four boards, and ran extension cords through holes punched in the walls, according to one lawsuit.
The half-dozen other tenants living in the row house were impoverished and “desperate,” one suit stated.
The fire is believed to have started in the basement shortly after 9:36 a.m. on Aug. 18, 2019, trapping Kebede and the boy, who had been left in Kebede’s care after his mother left at 5:30 a.m. for her custodial shift at George Washington University.
There were no working smoke detectors in the basement, and the fire broke out near the back exit — the only way out of the basement, according to one lawsuit, because Walker had installed a metal security gate at the front to keep the basement tenants from accessing the main floor, where his girlfriend ran a seamstress shop.
When firefighters rushed to the burning row house, they had to call for a metal saw to get through the door. When they made it to the basement, they found the little boy lying on top of Kebede, both severely burned and unconscious.
Solomen, who was in cardiac arrest, was taken to the emergency room at Children’s National, where he was resuscitated 30 minutes later. But it was too late: Doctors told his mother, who rushed to the hospital from her cleaning job, he was brain dead. He died from his injuries two days later.
Kebede was taken by ambulance to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead. He left behind a minor child, according to the suits.
Lawsuit: Officer tried for months to get DCRA to investigate
The allegations of negligence against the District are largely based on the findings of an independent report D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned in October 2019, which detailed a litany of “critical missteps” by DCRA and other District agencies leading up to the fire.
As laid out in the lawsuit, D.C. Police Officer Ernie Davis was called to the row house on March 21, 2019 — nearly five months before the fire — for the report of a noise violation.
The officer, who was cross-trained to identify and report code violations, was troubled by the amateur-built series of apartments he found inside. He also noted the nearly two-decade-old certificate of occupancy allowed for a deli and pharmacy on the first floor, not the seamstress shop or rental units.
The officer filed a public incident report, writing “There are too many make shift doors with locks which would make it difficult to exit in an emergency.” He sent the report to DCRA and two FEMS employees the next day with the subject line “Serious Code Violations.”
But the officer’s initial complaint, which should have been immediately phoned into the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency hotline, was only forwarded to a series of other DCRA workers, including some who apparently never opened it, and the complaint was never entered into the databases DCRA uses to track issues, according to the D.C. investigation.
The lawsuit said the officer followed up four separate times over the span of months in an apparent attempt to rouse DCRA into action. When the case was finally assigned to a DCRA investigator in June 2019, the employee visited 708 Kennedy St., took pictures of the front of the building, knocked on the front door and, when no one answered, left.
The investigator said he visited two more times, but the lawsuits said “There is no evidence corroborating” that.
There was no digital record of the visits in the DCRA database, and the investigator said the paper files he kept were lost in an office move, according to the lawsuits.
The lawsuits said two DCRA officials, who generally kept track of open investigations via an offline spreadsheet, decided not to include the house in a report listing open complaints, and decided to close the investigation of 708 Kennedy on Aug. 16 — two days before the fire.
“Despite Officer Davis’ detailed warnings and persistence, the only action the District took in the months preceding the fire was sending out a single employee to the property to inquire about proper permitting,” the suits both said.
Following the officer’s report, “no District employee ever inspected the interior of 708 Kennedy. FEMS never even opened a file concerning 708 Kennedy. DCRA closed its file on 708 Kennedy two days before the fire. The District’s actions (or, more accurately put, lack thereof) can be described as nothing less than disgraceful neglect and a clear violation” of its duties, the suits stated.
The lawsuits also blasted DCRA’s response to the fire:
Given the horrific circumstances of (Solomen’s) death and the sickening knowledge that it was entirely preventable, one would assume that the District would have promptly reformed how it responds to complaints concerning dangerous buildings and illegal housing,” the suit stated. “However, upon learning of the fire, DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah made a public plea to tenants, stating ‘[p]lease reach out to us … so that we can hold your landlord responsible and ensure that you are living in a safe environment.’ Such a deflecting statement is akin to putting the onus on victims of assault to identify the perpetrators before the assault ever occurs. What is worse, a District Police Officer did “reach out” to DCRA four times and DCRA did nothing.
Each lawsuit seeks $50 million in compensatory damages from Walker and D.C., and $100 million in punitive damages from Walker.
One of the lawsuits was filed by D.C. attorney Peter Grenier, who represents Solomen’s mother and her son’s estate. The other lawsuit was filed by D.C. attorney Jerry Spitz, who is representing Kebede’s estate.
WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified some of the defendants in the case. The article has been updated.