COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A woman whose two children died in a fire at a public housing complex can sue the housing authority if the deaths are found to be caused by employee negligence or physical defects in a government building, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The high court's 5-2 decision stemmed from an October 2003 fire in Oberlin that killed 4-year-old De Angelo Macarthy and his 15-month-old sister, Dezirae Macarthy.
Their mother, Danielle Moore, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority in 2004, saying the apartment's only working smoke detector had been removed by site employees several days before the fire.
Ohio law grants government agencies immunity from lawsuits in most situations. But Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger cited a section of state law that allows for civil liability if negligence or physical defects occur on the grounds of some government buildings.
The law defines the bui ldings as those used in connection with a governmental function, "including, but not limited to, office buildings and courthouses." That phrasing is critical because it indicates the list of buildings eligible for the exemption goes beyond just office buildings and courthouses, Lanzinger said.
"We conclude that a unit of public housing is a building 'used in connection with the performance of a governmental function,'" she wrote in the majority opinion.
But the housing authority's attorney, Daniel Mason, said the public housing complex wasn't anything like office buildings or courthouses.
"I can't think of anything that's less governmental in nature than a dwelling unit where a person lives," he said. "They are tenants there, and they maintain it and live in it."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.