EDGEWATER, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Two tenants of an apartment complex in Edgewater, New Jersey that was mostly destroyed in a fire have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all residents.
The suit, filed this week in Bergen County Superior Court, seeks damages for economic and property losses from the massive fire at the Avalon at Edgewater complex last week.
The five-alarm blaze destroyed 240 units, permanently displacing 500 residents and temporarily displacing another 520 residents from surrounding buildings.
“Our clients have been displaced, many of them from their homes. Many of them have lost everything that was in their homes,” attorney Bruce Greenberg, with the firm Lite DePalma Greenberg, told 1010 WINS. “The lawsuit includes not only people who lived at the Avalon but people who live in the neighborhood and were damaged by the fire as well.”
The suit alleges that Avalon’s property managers initially told residents there was a “minor fire” in the complex nearly two hours after the fire first started.
“For a short time, building employees were telling residents at the time that the fire didn’t seem serious,” Greenberg said. “Two hours after the fire was first reported, Avalon sent an email to tenants saying that there was, what Avalon called, a ‘minor fire’ in the complex. In fact, of course, it was a fire that was visible across the river in New York.”
While no people died in the blaze, the suit says the fire claimed the lives of many pets and destroyed other irreplaceable items.
It was filed by Robert Loposky and Richard Kemp, who were both residents at the complex, according to the suit. It says Loposky lost all of his personal belongings, including his dogs. It says Kemp also lost all of his personal belongings.
The suit names Maryland-based AvalonBay Communities Inc. as the defendant as well as unknown entities and individuals that “may be responsible for and/or may have participated in the improper activities of defendant AvalonBay.”
Police said the blaze was sparked by workers using a blow-torch to make repairs to a leak.
“A plumbing repair ignited a fire in the wall which then spread through the building,” Edgewater Police Chief William Skidmore said last week. “It was accidental, there was nothing suspicious about it, and we have complete verification and there’s no doubt about it.”
Skidmore said the maintenance workers tried to douse the fire, but things soon got out of control.
“They tried to suppress it themselves and then they called their supervisor,” he said. “It was a very big contributor to it because there was a delay in the response of the fire department.”
Fire Chief Thomas Jacobson said the fire quickly spread through the floors and walls because of the building’s lightweight wood construction.
“If it was made out of concrete and cinder block, we wouldn’t have this problem,” Jacobson said last week, adding the building complied with construction codes.
Jacobson said the sprinklers were working and went off at the time of the blaze, but they were no match for the flames.
“It doesn’t get every area,” he said. “It gets the common areas where you can egress and get out. It gets your apartment. All the little voids inside every nook and cranny in the walls? No.”
The suit says that Avalon was made of lightweight wood construction “that may have accelerated the spread of the fire.” Greenberg said there are also “differing views” on whether the building was up to code.
“Avalon has asserted that that’s so,” he said. “Other people have questioned whether that’s so and our investigation is ongoing.”
In a statement last week, AvalonBay’s Chief Construction Officer Michael Feigin said the Avalon at Edgewater community “was built using wood frame construction, a standard, common, and safe construction method for multifamily housing used throughout the United States.”
“The community was built in accordance with the fire and safety codes applicable at the time,” he said. “The purpose of those codes is not to prevent the building from burning down, but rather to ensure that there is sufficient time and opportunity for all occupants to exit safely in the event of a fire.”
This isn’t the first time the same apartment complex has been engulfed in flames.
In August of 2000, the complex was under construction when a fast-moving fire tore through it. The flames also destroyed a dozen surrounding homes, displacing up to 70 people.
The 2000 fire was ruled accidental by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.
An AvalonBay spokesperson told 1010 WINS they have no comment at this time.