JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A student and her mother turned to the I-TEAM after receiving demand letters from Jacksonville University’s insurance company seeking payment of more than $143,000 for water damage to a dormitory. And in the course of our investigation, we uncovered a hidden danger that could affect your college student anywhere in Florida.
When you send your child off to college, you may assume their dorm room has been inspected for fire code violations. But the I-TEAM learned, there's a good chance a qualified fire inspector never laid eyes on the space where your child is living.
Our investigation came about after JU student Samantha Holman was with her mother in her dorm room in Williams Hall at the end of the last school year. While in the process of moving out, Holman tried to move a tall vintage-style wardrobe cabinet – a piece of furniture that was provided by the school – back into its original spot in her dorm room.
“So, I’m pushing it with my head down, just pushing it with all my might to like move it back where it was, as you saw it was huge, and I just felt a crash,” Holman described.
She said that “crash” was the very top of the wardrobe cabinet hitting the sprinkler.
“Almost like a paintball gun, just stuff was shooting at me and I didn’t even realize it was water,” added Holman’s mother, Lisa Corey. “She started screaming, ‘I hit the sprinkler, I hit the sprinkler.’ That’s when I realized what was happening.”
Holman said she immediately ran to get help while her mother remained on the 4th floor looking for staff and security. Holman’s mother told us seven minutes passed with the water flowing when she was instructed to go downstairs to evacuate the building.
“It was just complete chaos and staff was running around, security guards were running around, RAs were running around,” Holman’s mother explained. “We’re standing in there at this point and I hear yelling of, ‘Who’s turning this off?’ and ‘Has the fire department been called yet?’ And like I said, complete chaos."
After 20 minutes, with the water still flowing, the mother and daughter said the reality of the extent of the damage started to sink in. Everything was drenched, including personal items, computers, textbooks and furniture.
Holman and her mother said campus security guards admitted to them that they didn't know how to turn the sprinklers off. “One of the security guards at this point told us that the fire department was now on their way. I don't even think we heard sirens for 15, 20 minutes,” Holman’s mother said. After 31 minutes, they said campus facilities workers shut the sprinkler off. At that point, water flooded Holman’s 4th floor, as well as the 3rd, 2nd and 1st floors -- resulting in thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.
According to a letter titled “Demand For Payment” -- sent by attorneys for JU’s insurance company to Samantha Holman’s mother -- the insurer wants $143,017.13 for all the repairs that needed to be made. The I-TEAM took a closer at the wardrobe cabinet Holman moved before the top of it hit the sprinkler. We found what appeared to be a fire code violation because The National Fire Protection Association requires at least 18 inches of clearance between a sprinkler head and any storage below.
We shared photos of the wardrobes with Jacksonville Fire Marshal Kevin Jones who responded in part, “…the wardrobes are in violation of the 18” clearance space required under the Florida Fire Prevention Code."
Jones went on to explain the challenge if the wardrobes are in the individual dorm rooms.
He said in the statement, "From a fire code perspective, a student's dorm room is the equivalent of a tenant's apartment rental unit; therefore, fire safety inspections into individual dorm rooms are not conducted by the Fire Marshal’s office but instead remain a responsibility of the University..."
The city confirmed to the I-TEAM, J-U got its certificate of completion and is safety compliant after hiring a third-party private company to perform its safety inspections. We contacted that third-party company, whose manager told us state law does not allow the company to check for fire code violations specifically, nor are their inspectors qualified to do so, so the company never checked for fire code violations in the JU dorm rooms.
He also added, not being able to check for fire code violations in the individual dorms rooms is a common and dangerous problem that ultimately needs to be addressed by Florida lawmakers.
When we asked JU why it took 31 minutes to turn off the water, a university spokesperson told us standard protocol is to search room by room for fire before deactivating the sprinklers -- adding it took 26 minutes to inspect each room, and it took additional time for the water to fully drain out of the damaged sprinkler.
JU said in statement, "…the safety of our students is our top priority. We are committed to meeting all laws and codes that govern our 240-acre campus, and our facilities team works closely with city inspectors and fire marshals to address any issues brought to our attention."
The statement went on to say, “Jacksonville University is not pursuing any legal action or payment from the student. The University carries extensive insurance on its buildings and filed a claim with its insurance carrier.”
However, the mother and daughter argue the amount of damage could have been avoided in the first place, since they told university officials right away there was no fire, explaining to them that a cabinet hit the sprinklers. So, they tell the I-TEAM they refuse to pay JU’s insurance company for the damages.
“I blame the school for not having turned the water off sooner. I blame the school for not having furniture up to code in the rooms,” said Holman’s mom.
Jacksonville University told the I-TEAM it encourages all students who are moving into dorms to get renters' insurance, but wants to make it clear, the school itself is not demanding payment from the student. The dorm has been repaired, and it is the school's insurance company demanding the money.
The I-TEAM spoke with an attorney representing the insurance company who told us the insurer is still pursuing legal action because the furniture involved in the incident was moved. However, that attorney said the insurer is still in the fact-finding phase.