JOSEPH GARTRELL ET AL.
CITY OF HARTFORD ET AL.
January 25, 2018
to recover damages for, inter alia, violations of the state
building code with respect to certain real property, and for
other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial
district of Hartford, where the action was withdrawn as to
the defendant Environmental Services, Inc.; thereafter, the
matter was tried to the jury before Berger, J.; subsequently,
the court granted the named defendant's motion for a
directed verdict and rendered judgment for the named
defendant, from which the plaintiffs appealed to this court.
R. Williams, for the appellants (plaintiffs).
G. Osbourne, assistant corporation counsel, for the appellee
Alvord, Keller and Bright, Js.
plaintiffs, Joseph Gartrell, 481 Albany Avenue, and Wonder
Package, LLC, appeal from the judgment of the trial court
granting the motion for a directed verdict in favor of the
defendant city of Hartford (city). The plaintiffs claim that
the trial court erred in directing a verdict for the city on
the basis of the jury's answer to a single interrogatory.
We affirm the judgment of the trial court.
following facts and procedural history are relevant to this
appeal. The plaintiffs owned a mixed-use commercial and
residential building located at 481 Albany Avenue in Hartford
(building). The first floor of the building was occupied by a
liquor store, which was owned by Gartrell, and a
delicatessen, and the second and third floors consisted of
two units each of residential apartments.
Saturday, February 12, 2011, at 6:15 a.m., a nonresident who
was present in the building started a fire on the third
floor, using gasoline as an accelerant. The Hartford Fire
Department (department) responded, and Gregory Simon, an
officer with the department, authorized firefighters to enter
the building. Firefighters had been alerted that a person was
unaccounted for and that he was suspected to be in the third
apartment.'' Firefighters attempted to reach the third
floor but were forced back by ‘‘heavy
fire'' they encountered in the stairwell leading to
the third floor. The fire engulfed structural members
supporting the roof, which caused Simon concern that the roof
was compromised. Simon also was aware that the building had
heavy snow on the roof, which, combined with
‘‘the deteriorating roof members, ''
caused ‘‘concern for imminent collapse.''
The third floor of the building became ‘‘fully
involved, '' and the fire also started to envelop the
second floor. One side of the building began to bow outward.
As a result of the heavy fire, the department's safety
officer, after consulting with the chief, ordered Simon's
team to withdraw from the building, and a second team
extinguished the fire from another location. Michael Fuschi,
the Hartford building official, inspected the building on the
day of the fire and determined that the roof rafters could
‘‘no longer support the original load by
design.'' Temporary shoring was installed in order to
permit officials to conduct their investigation.
commercial tenant called him on the morning of the fire and
told him that the building was burning. Gartrell lived in
Bloomfield and was ill at the time. He was not able to drive
and did not go to the building until two days after he
learned of the fire.
the day of the fire, the city issued to Gartrell a notice of
violation stating that the building had been deemed unsafe
due to fire. The notice stated that the city's inspector
would hire a contractor to board up the building, and a bill
would follow. It directed Gartrell to ‘‘make
building safe or demolish building.'' Gartrell
received and counter-signed the notice on February 14, 2011,
the same day that Gartrell first went to the building after
the fire. Gartrell had gone to the building to meet with a
representative from his insurance company. The police
initially did not permit Gartrell to enter the building but
he later entered the building and looked up the stairs. While
Gartrell was at the building, a representative of the city
told him that they would board up the building. At some point
after the fire and before the demolition, Gartrell spoke with
a carpenter named Benjamin Brown about fixing the building,
but Gartrell needed time for his insurance company to
estimate the job, and neither Brown nor Gartrell had made any
preparations or requested any permits to repair the building.
basis of his investigation, Fuschi had concluded by February
18, 2011, that under § 116.4 of the State Building Code,
imminent danger requiring immediate action existed, and he
ordered the building to be demolished. On February 18, 2011,
the city issued a second notice, signed by Fuschi, which
stated: ‘‘[B]uild-ing to be demolished. Building
poses imminent danger to public.'' Gartrell did not
receive or counter-sign the second notice. The city retained
Environmental Services, Inc., to demolish the building.
Demolition began on February 19, 2011, and was completed on
March 3, 2011.
plaintiffs commenced the present action in February, 2013. In
their operative complaint, the plaintiffs alleged in two
counts against the city that, inter alia, the city violated
§§ 115.3 and 116 of the State Building Code and
General Statutes §§ 49-73b and 49-34, in that it
failed to provide the plaintiffs with notice describing the
conditions deemed unsafe, failed to specify the required
repairs, and failed to provide adequate notice that the
building would be demolished within a stipulated time. The
plaintiffs further alleged that the city deprived them of due
process of law by preventing them from accessing the building
and retrieving its contents.
trial, the plaintiffs presented the testimony of Gartrell and
Debra Nails, a tenant of the building. After the plaintiffs
rested, the city moved for a directed verdict, arguing that
the plaintiffs had not ‘‘carried the burden of
proof with respect to showing that the city did not act
underan emergency, '' and that the plaintiffs
‘‘offered no evidence whatsoever as to whether
the plaintiff[s] [were] going to expeditiously render the
premises safe.'' The plaintiffs' counsel
objected, arguing that there were ‘‘substantial
issues of negligence'' and that the city officials
needed to testify as to the issue of whether the city was
justified in making the decision to demolish the building so
quickly. The court reserved decision on the motion.
The city then presented the testimony of Simon and Fuschi,
and the plaintiffs recalled Gartrell in rebuttal. After the
close of evidence, the city renewed its motion for a directed
verdict, arguing that the plaintiffs had presented no
evidence to challenge the city's evidence of an
emergency. The plaintiffs' counsel objected, arguing that
there was sufficient evidence, in the form of Gartrell's
testimony that the building was not badly damaged, to present
the issue to the jury. The court again reserved decision, and
then stated: ‘‘All right. I'm going to follow
the procedure that I discussed with you folks. Which means we
will ask-provide the jury with this one interrogatory. And so
we will have closing arguments and then charges on this
issue.'' The city's counsel inquired of the court
whether the jury would see the interrogatory before or after
closing arguments, and the following exchange occurred:
‘‘The Court: They will go in with an instruction
‘‘[The City 's Counsel]: Before or-
‘‘The Court: You're allowed to say to
them-you're allowed to argue that to them. . . . And I
will help you out-both out by telling the jury that I am
going to ask this question of them first. And then you'll
be able to start your very short, abbreviated closing
argument on this issue. And then back to [the city's
counsel], and then back to [the plaintiffs' counsel],
just as if we were doing a regular closing argument. I will
give them a short charge on this. And give them that
‘‘[The City's Counsel]: And the defendant
first? And plaintiff last? I believe that's the order,
unless I'm mistaken.
‘‘The Court: It's plaintiff, defendant,
‘‘[The City's Counsel]: Yes, sir.
‘‘The Court: And one issue.
‘‘[The City's Counsel]: ...