Wrongful deaths: Lawsuits led to out of court settlements

John Sevier Fire

A Jan. 11, 1990 Johnson City Press article about the first lawsuits filed related to the John Sevier fire. (Courtesy Johnson City Press)

This article is one in a series on the Dec. 24, 1989 fire that killed 16 people at the John Sevier Center (Click here for more.)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Before fire investigators had released many conclusions or a state legislative committee had begun peeling back the layers regarding code enforcement, the lawsuits over the deadly Dec. 24, 1989 John Sevier fire began.

From the $1 million lawsuit filed by the family of Ivan Atwood.

By Jan. 10, 1990, the Johnson City Press reported that Virginia Somich, whose daughter and mother (Charlynn Somich and Blanche Shell) both died in the fire, had filed suits in Johnson City Law Court. They included a class action suit on behalf of family members related to other victims, and another seeking compensation for Somich and Shell’s deaths.

The defendants included two prominent Johnson Citians, father and son U.G. Trivett Jr. and Grant Trivett, as well as four partnerships or corporations affiliated with the pair, who had seen the John Sevier Hotel’s conversion to a high-rise, subsidized apartment complex. They were the John Sevier Center, a limited partnership; GAT, a limited partnership; M&M Properties, a corporation that provided property management; and Trend Builders, another corporation.

Eventually, most victims’ families filed their own individual suits. The primary allegations centered around hazards the plaintiffs’ attorneys claimed were created during the building’s renovation, lack of adequate fire safety measures and numerous other claims. The “failure to properly seal openings above the false ceilings and other concealed draft openings and around exposed pipes” (Charles W. Gee vs. defendants) played prominently in most suits. That mirrored fire officials’ reports and the findings of the joint legislative committee.

“I didn’t get real involved in the details of it but we were approached by a lawyer, and we got involved not in a class action lawsuit but a slight litigation lawsuit,” Chuck Gee said in a late October, 2019 interview. “Didn’t accuse them of anything in particular but I did try to convince the people I was talking to, you’re trying to put a value on a person’s life and this is not a typical 82-year-old lady, she was very active. I had that conversation, but I didn’t get into, ‘did you have adequate fire protection?’ I probably should have but I didn’t.”

Gee’s attorney, Olen Haynes, did, in a suit that sought $1 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. So did other families’ representatives. A $1 million suit filed on behalf of Ivan Atwood’s children by the now deceased Bob McD. Green referenced “gross, willful and wanton carelessness and negligence of the Defendants in failing to re-seal the utility shafts as they were originally designed and installed in the John Sevier Hotel.” That failure, the suit alleged, “created, in effect, two or more chimneys which rose from the first floor to the roof of the building (which) created a draft which accelerated and exacerbated the outpouring of smoke into each and every unit, causing the death of Ivan V. Atwood and other residents of the facility.”

The suits also pre-supposed, rightly as it turned out, that the Trivetts would seek plausible deniability through the various partnerships and corporations they had established. The Gee suit (filed by the son of victim Josephine Eager) and others alleged those partnerships and corporations were completely operated and controlled by the Trivetts with “interlocking boards of directors.”

Those entities had, the suit claimed, “been treated as sole, personal, individual and private properties of U.G. Trivett, Jr. and Grant Trivett, and … any corporate veil which purportedly shields them from responsibility of liability from the said corporate acts should be pierced and they be held in their individual capacities.”

Firing back: Defendants split up

The defendants answered separately. One attorney represented U.G. Trivett, The John Sevier Center and M&M Properties. Another represented Grant Trivett and GAT, and a third represented Trend Builders.

T.J. Little, the attorney for Grant Trivett and GAT, claimed those defendants “were mere tenants of the John Sevier Center.” The defense claimed “they leased certain portions of the John Sevier Center from the John Sevier Center Limited Partnership.”

Little’s defense also claimed Grant Trivett and GAT contracted with other entities for remodeling work “on the portion of the premises leased to them.” They then entered into a management contract with M&M Properties and that M&M had total and exclusive control of the portions of the building leased to GAT, the defense said. It added that they had no input into design or remodeling work and couldn’t have known about any alleged problems or defects in the building.

U.G. Trivett, John Sevier Center and M&M’s defense, provided by Charles T. Herndon IV, denied all plaintiffs’ allegations of negligence. It said the defendants “at all times attempted in good faith to cooperate with, assist, and work with the Johnson City Fire Department, and representatives of the City of Johnson City, both before and after the incident in question.”

Green, representing Atwood’s family, claimed that though Trend Builders (which shared an address with M&M) “was ostensibly involved in the construction of the building,” it was the Trivetts who “dealt individually and personally with the building inspectors during the renovation…”

That suit also claimed the alleged defects in the building, including the lack of proper venting, “were purposefully and fraudulently concealed, not only from the tenants, but from the building inspectors and those personnel who examined the building, pursuant to an inquiry as to whether the building complied with the applicable building and fire code provisions.”

Blaming the victims?

Another defense strategy centered around who was negligent. Reports had been made that the center had numerous false alarms and that some residents didn’t always respond when the alarm sounded. The defendants also said “residents were furnished periodic and frequent fire evacuation instructions, including fire drills, and were reminded on a frequent basis regarding fire safety.”

At least in the defenses of the Gee and Atwood cases, this led to allegations against the victims – allegations that left at least one victim’s family member beside herself. Herndon’s defense of U.G. Trivett in the Atwood case included the following claims:

After an alarm, “it is averred that the deceased, did not make any attempt to leave the building or go to the exit door a few feet from the room he was in.” Though a smoke vestibule was near Atwood’s room, the defense claims Atwood didn’t attempt to go to it “or exit down the accompanying fire escape.”

Finally, the defense alleged “that Ivan Atwood was guilty of negligence which proximately caused or contributed to his injuries. His negligence consisted of his failure to exercise the care of an ordinarily prudent person for his own well-being and safety and for his failure to heed warnings, alarms, and/or other notices to immediately evacuate the building.”

That didn’t sit well with Donna Atwood Duffy, Atwood’s oldest child. She said the funeral home told her that Atwood, who had emphysema, was found in the stairway with his checkbook and his coat on.

“His intention most assuredly was to get out of that building,” Atwood said in a Dec. 12 interview. “That was just infuriating to me that they would suggest that when that was contrary to everything that I was told.”

“They were just trying to protect themselves,” she added.

The same claims were made regarding Josephine Eager in the Gee suit and in multiple other suits.

Settled but still unsettling

The defendants eventually settled the lawsuits out of court for undisclosed sums. “There was a settlement,” Gee said. “A small settlement – I think probably for several of the people.”

The M&M Properties continued to manage the John Sevier Center and the ownership remained the same (eventually there were multiple investors) up until the center was sold to the Johnson City Development Authority earlier this year. U.G. Trivett Jr. died in 1999. Grant Trivett died in 2010.

Christmas Eve, when the victims died, is also Donna Atwood Duffy’s birthday. Losing her 68-year-old father in the way she did “kind of did a number on my head for a long time,” she said. “For years I wouldn’t acknowledge my birthday. I’ve come to realize that was the circle of life and that’s the way it unfolded.”

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