I-TEAM: High-rise residents join forces to possibly sue after fire

As residents return, investigation into possible negligence grows

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After a fire at a Jacksonville high-rise senior living facility in mid-December left 300 people homeless before the holidays, nearly a third of them have joined forces to possibly sue. 

A pair of attorneys have taken on more than 80 cases against the management of the Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments on Philips Highway. 

"This was, and continues to be, an intentional reckless desire to put profits over people," attorney John Phillips told the News4Jax I-TEAM on Thursday. 

The I-TEAM was the first to report that Cambridge Management was put on notice that the building was not up to fire code, but the fire marshal said management did not make mandated repairs, leading to the three-alarm fire that sent six to the hospital.

Those injured are now among the claimants looking to collect for their suffering.

"Really what this is, in a nutshell, is a series of disasters orchestrated by Cambridge and now they are blaming the victims," attorney Kirby Johnson said.

As residents -- who've been living in hotels since the fire and water damage turned into an asbestos cleanup on the premises -- began to move back in on Thursday, the I-TEAM sat down with the two attorneys.

Phillips and Johnson said what happened to the 300 people who lived at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments before, during and after the fateful Dec. 18 fire isn't right.

They share a voicemail from a resident trying to return home earlier in the morning.

"I came here and they had changed my locks. I couldn't even get in the place. They changed the locks because their lawyer advised them to because I was talking to the media," the resident said in the voicemail. 

The I-TEAM went to the building to ask management if that was true.

"We have parameters for visits by media. This is private property. We need to have a peaceful environment for our residents to move into. It's chaotic and stressful enough, so you guys are going to have to leave the premises," said a woman with the management company who declined to give her name.

The I-TEAM then asked, "We were just coming by because we understood one woman let her attorneys know y'all had changed the locks on her because she had talked to the media?"

"She moved out," said the woman with management, who went on to say, "I can't talk to you any further. You need to leave the premises."

"Are you locking anyone out of their units?" the I-TEAM questioned.

"No. Time to go," the woman said as a security guard walked out with the I-TEAM.

After being escorted off the property, a Cambridge Management spokeswoman sent a statement, which reads:

Due to limited available space in our building at this time and safety concerns, we are restricting the number of guests that a tenant can have on-site during the move-in process for any given visit to two. As such, at most we can only welcome two media members at a time who can demonstrate that they are invited guests of registered tenants so they can conduct on-camera interviews of the tenants they are visiting. These interviews will also have to be confined to the tenant’s apartment unit. As you are undoubtedly aware, under Florida law, common areas contained within a private building and other tenant units are only accessible via permission from all tenants, which has not been secured in this instance. It would be unlawful and a violation of our other residents and employees’ privacy rights if any attempts were made to record them without their express permission while on private property. Security officials will escort any media that qualify for a visit as a guest to and from the relevant unit to ensure compliance with this important restriction that also protects the privacy of our other residents. We appreciate your cooperation in this matter."

What the I-TEAM exposed immediately after the fire were internal emails and photos from the fire marshal, showing the building's fire pump wasn't working during a routine inspection in October. A pump helps control the sprinkler pressure during a fire.

"We're in an era, we are persecuting the media enough as it is," Phillips said. "If it wasn't for the I-TEAM, we wouldn't know about stories like this."

The fire marshal mandated Cambridge Management start a fire watch or evacuate the building. The fire marshal said the company did neither. 

Now, the fire marshal is investigating if the sprinklers and fire alarms also weren't working. 

As the investigation continues, Johnson said, his clients continue to suffer.

"I spoke with one gentlemen who had his father's ashes in there and they won't even let him know if they have that, or threw it away or got damaged in the fire," Johnson said.

The legal pair said the building is comprised of nearly all elderly, low-income residents, who rely on Section 8 vouchers. They said residents lost, or haven't had access to for months, power wheelchairs, standard wheelchairs, walking canes, oxygen machines, prosthetic limbs and dentures.

"The clothes, and just the bare necessities, Lynnsey, is dignity," Phillips said. "They are depriving people in their golden years. They are depriving of their dignity."

Attorneys Kirby Johnson and John Phillips

Another issue is residents are getting short notice to move back in, receiving notes saying they have an appointment to move back in at a certain time on a specific date. Some only got an eight- to 24-hour heads-up. With many of the residents being elderly or disabled, they are having a hard time arranging transportation on short notice. That's where Phillips said the management company continues to err because the residents are lease holders who have rights to their homes and property inside.

As for what's next, Phillips and Johnson said they are in the beginning stages or collecting records and leases. In their words, if like minds can't meet on what should be done for the elderly people forced out of their homes, then a lawsuit may be coming. 

Late Thursday afternoon, management sent the I-TEAM the following statement on behalf of its legal counsel:

Our focus continues to be on safely returning all tenants to their homes as soon as possible. Until all of our authorized tenants are able to return to their residences, they will be allowed to remain in the extended stay accommodations we have provided. Due to safety and logistical concerns, we have placed restrictions on access to the apartments and the facility in order to comply with applicable regulations while safety inspections and remediation operations are ongoing. 
 
If and when any litigation in this matter is filed we will address it at that point."

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