BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — 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.
Lawyers for the four former tenants — Gayle Gardner, Tanya Pulisciano, Crystal Caissie and Louise Felteau — argued that there were no grounds for the judge to do either of the things the owners’ attorneys were asking, suggesting that Simpson’s lawyers were raising issues they hadn’t raised before the trial.
As for the suggestion that the jury must have considered the loss of pets as part of their calculations, the lawyers for the tenants noted that “minimal” time was spent discussing the pets and that the judge clearly instructed the jury not to base their emotional distress awards on those deaths.
Under Massachusetts law, pets are considered property, regardless of the emotional attachment owners may have.
They also cited a line of cases in which tenants were entitled to receive emotional distress damages for the negligence of landlords.
But the judge sided with the apartment owners.
“Here, the jury awarded emotional distress damages of $450,000 per plaintiff, notwithstanding the absence of evidence of medical or psychiatric diagnoses or expenses,” Saylor wrote in a 27-page ruling issued earlier this month.
He concluded the damage awards were “excessive and not supported by the weight of the evidence.”
He gave the former tenants until Aug. 29 to decide whether to accept $100,000 each or go to trial again over the issue of damages for emotional distress.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.