Tragic files: Three lawsuits target Clifton
Eight months after the historic and sumptuous Clifton Inn burned, attorneys have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits for the families of two New York women killed in the November 14 fire.
Trish Langlade and Billie Kelly, recruiters for the international law firm of Willkie Farr and Gallagher, died in the pre-dawn blaze at one of Charlottesville's finest lodging places.
Langlade's husband, Gerald, filed a $10 million lawsuit June 28 against Clifton owners Mitchell and Emily Willey in U.S. District Court. That same day, Brian Kelly filed a suit seeking $1 million in compensatory damages for the death of his late wife, Billie Kelly. And Margaret Mansouri, a UVA law grad employed by Willkie Farr, who was hospitalized from the fire, sued for $2 million.
The plaintiffs are also seeking treble damages for violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, as well as punitive damages.
The complaints list six causes of action, and Matt Murray, attorney for Gerald Langlade, finds it hard to pick the most egregious.
"They did have fire inspectors tell them what was deficient– and they did nothing to correct them," he says.
The battery-operated smoke detectors did not have back-ups, nor were they interconnected so that "if one goes off in the west wing, the east wing would hear," says Murray.
He mentions an elaborate telephone relay system that was supposed to call the fire department, but notes, "It wasn't hooked up."
Langlade and Kelly were staying in the Thomas Mann Randolph Room above the drawing room, where the fire began.
"There's some evidence they could have survived if they could have gotten the windows open, but they were painted shut," says Murray. "To have no escape from those rooms..." he says, his voice trailing off.
And then, he continues, "To have an inn where the staff departs at midnight and leaves burning candles. It's hard to tell which was the worst."
Jim Morris at the Richmond firm representing the Willeys declined to comment. "We don't discuss pending lawsuits," he says.
The night before the fire, seven Willkie Farr attorneys joined the two recruiters to wine and dine second-year UVA law students the firm was wooing to work in its summer program.
When high winds knocked out power around 8pm, the inn's staff didn't skip a beat in serving dinner. They lit more candles and fires, and according to one of the attendees who spoke to the Hook a few days after the blaze, the party didn't break up until around 11:30pm.
A fire broke out in the drawing room around 5am. Langlade and Kelly awoke to extreme heat and toxic black smoke, say the filings. Trapped in the Thomas Mann Randolph Room, they died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation while attempting to escape.
Mansouri's room was on the first floor beside the drawing room, and the only window in her room was blocked by the headboard of her bed, according to her suit. She lost consciousness in the bathroom while trying to escape.
Closed since the fire, the Clifton Inn announced in March that it would rebuild. A person answering the phone there earlier this week said it would reopen "sometime in the fall."
Clifton's ritzy reputation is being used against it in the lawsuits, which note the inn's oral and written claims of "elegant accommodations... and personalized attention."
And despite its being closed since November, AAA honored the Clifton Inn with its highest four-diamond award July 12.
The Clifton Inn's website says the historic landmark will be rebuilt.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
The fatal fire started in the drawing room; UVA law school grad Margaret Mansouri was rescued from the adjacent suite.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO