On Christmas evening, Johnnie and Sophia went to sleep after a wonderful holiday. In the early evening hours, they awoke with their bedroom filled with noxious fumes and smoke. Unable to breathe or see, they realized the apartment in which they lived was engulfed in flames. They threw their then 18-month old daughter out the second floor window into the arms of a neighbor and attempted to find their two sons. Tragically, both boys died in the conflagration. A nephew who was spending the night was severely burned.
James R. Murphy, Jr. was retained to represent the family and determine the cause for the fire. An extensive investigation done by Santa Maria Fire Department and CAL FIRE could not determine the cause. It was speculated that combustible material from a blanket may have been placed near the floor heater. The family vehemently denied that allegation. The landlord defended himself by alleging the family had taken the batteries from the overhead smoke alarms and had used them for toys for the children on Christmas, resulting in the lack of a warning to the family.
After two years of litigation, the insurance carrier for the landlord offered $5,000.00 in full and final settlement of the claims, based upon their position the landlord was not responsible for the fire and that the family was negligent for removing the batteries from the smoke detectors. As trial approached, Mr. Murphy and the firm committed themselves to finding out what really happened on Christmas night at the residence.
An exhaustive investigation lead to the location of former tenants who had occupied the apartment prior to the fire. During the initial telephone conversation between Jim and the prior tenants, Mr. Murphy uncovered the following information: that the smoke-detectors had never worked; that the prior tenants had requested the landlord fix the smoke-detector but he refused; and that the floor heater ran so hot that a childâ€™s toy rolled on top of the grate of the furnace and melted onto the grate. The tenant stated: â€œthe floor furnace burned so hot that it burned the pattern of the grate onto the wall behind the floor furnace.â€ Further investigation lead to the recovery of five compelling photographs. In one photograph, the former tenantsâ€™ daughter was eating an ice cream cone; behind her, on the wall, was scorched the pattern of the grill from this defective floor furnace.
The furnace company had been out of business for 40 years. The former tenants testified that when they complained to the landlord about the problems with the floor furnace, he stated that â€œthe furnace isnâ€™t my responsibility.â€ After showing the photographs to defense counsel, they were dismissed as irrelevant. Later that night, Mr. Murphy received a telephone call from the defense attorney offering the $3.1 million dollar insurance policy. The case was settled because the family wanted closure and did not wish to pursue the litigation further. The case settled over Mr. Murphyâ€™s objection, given the fact Jim believed case the landlord should have paid a substantially greater amount for the tragedy visited upon this family.
Testimonial by Johnnie
â€œJim Murphy is not just a wonderful lawyer, he is now a lifetime friend. He handled our case with compassion, integrity and professionalism. His staff is wonderful. We could not more highly recommend any attorney for any case.â€
Testimonial by Sophia
â€œJim and his team devoted themselves to our case. Knowing how important this case was to us, they never stopped working. Even when the insurance company refused to settle the case, Jim continued to have faith and hope and encouraged me to have faith and hope. We love Jim; we can never thank him enough for what he has done for our family.â€