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Local News

August 26, 2013

Judge slashes jury verdicts in 2008 Peabody fire

Tenants get choice -- Take lower amount or face another trial

PEABODY — Four residents burned out of their homes in a devastating fire at a Peabody apartment complex five years ago won a legal victory earlier this year.

A jury concluded that they each deserved $450,000 in damages for the emotional distress caused by the fire, which, the jury also decided, was caused by the negligence of the owner of the Highlands at Dearborn apartments off Route 1.

Now a judge has swept much of it away, giving the former tenants of Building 8 a choice: Accept a far lower amount of $100,000 each or face the prospect of another trial.

The May 2008 fire, blamed on a cigarette tossed carelessly into mulch around the building, could have been prevented if the owners had followed the recommendation of a Peabody fire official to move the mulch away from the structure after an earlier mulch fire there, the jury concluded following a trial last April in U.S. District Court.

Four residents who had opted not to settle with the owner of the complex, Simpson Financing Limited Partnership, took the case to trial.

The lawsuits were originally filed in Lynn Housing Court in 2009, but at the request of the property owners, the case was transferred to U.S. District Court in Boston, where it took nearly four years to come to trial.

After a series of motions, Judge Dennis Saylor allowed the negligence and emotional distress claims to be argued to a jury, and at the end of the trial, according to court documents, the jury unanimously held Simpson liable for damages to each of the tenants for their lost belongings, in varying amounts, as well as for emotional distress.

Simpson’s attorneys quickly appealed, asking Saylor to reduce the amount of damages or grant them a new trial.

They contend that the jury — which wasn’t questioned about how it came to the amount — must have considered the impact of the death of pets in the fire, and they also argued that the former tenants failed to present enough evidence, such as medical records, to support their emotional distress claims.

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