As suits loom: Clifton Inn sets winter rebirth

It's been nearly a year since an early-morning blaze gutted much of the Clifton Inn and took the lives of two guests, Trish Langlade and Billie Kellie, both recruiters visiting UVA from a New York law firm. A third woman, UVA grad and fellow recruiter Margaret Mansouri, was rescued unconscious from a first floor bathroom. Now, even though under the cloud of three pending lawsuits, Clifton has announced its official plans to reopen.

"Clifton, one of Virginia's most intimate and elegant historic properties," says a press release, "is preparing to write the next chapter of its long and fascinating story when it reopens its doors in January 2005."

Indeed, the Inn does have a rich history. Built in 1799 by Thomas Jefferson's son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, also a governor of Virginia, the Inn was first known as Edgehill.

As a 14-room luxury inn, Clifton was known for its top-notch restaurant, lush grounds, and cutting edge technology– each room featured high speed Internet access, flat screen television, and CD library. But it was the historic ambience that set it apart from modern facilities like the Omni.

While the fire marshal ruled the fire accidental and never determined the cause of the blaze, the three lawsuits claim that the historic ambience– namely candles and fireplaces left unattended– were likely to blame. In addition, the suits contend, the windows at the Inn were painted shut, making escape impossible.

Of the three suits, the one brought by Trish Langlade's husband, Gerald, is the largest, asking for $10 million in compensatory damages. Brian Kelly, Billie Kelly's husband, is asking for $1 million in damages, while survivor Mansouri is seeking $2 million for the injuries and suffering she sustained.

"How do you say this life is worth X dollars, and this life is worth Y dollars?" asks Langlade's attorney Matthew Murray. "The inherent difficulty in any wrongful death case is to turn a loved one into a monetary figure."

Though a federal judge is currently deliberating whether to drop five of the six count in the Langlade suit, it will move forward, regardless of the judge's decision, with a minimum of one count of negligence. Murray expects a spring or summer hearing.

Clifton manager J.F. Legault declines comment on the suits. "It's not appropriate," he says, referring a reporter to the press release.

Nowhere in the press release does it mention the lawsuits, nor does it discuss upgraded safety features. But Legault says the Inn has been and will continue to be in compliance with fire codes.

As for the fire, he declines comment and points again to the press release.

"The tragic events of last November will always be remembered by all of us in the Clifton family," says Legault in the release. "At the same time, we feel a great responsibility to restore what has long been not only one of Charlottesville's historical treasures, but one of the finest luxury inns in America."

Murray says no matter how fine an inn Clifton was or will be, it needs to be accountable– and to pay for the tragedy.

"Trish Langlade left two small children," says Murray. "The money will be useful in helping to educate them."

But more than the money, says Murray, "it's the accountability. Hopefully it will prevent a similar tragedy somewhere else."

Clifton Inn will reopen in January.