Family of woman killed in Alaska house fire lose case for filing nine days after statute ran out

By Kacie Whaley | Sep 21, 2017

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Legal Newsline) – The family of a woman who was killed in a house fire lost their suit against their neighbor due to filing the complaint after the statute of limitations had run out.

The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the decision made by the Superior Court on Sept. 8. 

Daniel T. Quinn, the attorney who represented the defendant, told Legal Newsline that he was pleased with the Supreme Court's decision and that his client was "relieved."

"I thought the ruling was consistent with Alaska law," Quinn said. "You never know [the outcome] until it comes down. "

Although the plaintiffs lost the case, the winning side expressed their condolences for the life lost in the tragic fire.

"The whole event was sad," Quinn said. "I felt bad for the family's loss. The legal issue here really just had to do with the statute of limitations."

The lawsuit stemmed from a July 11, 2013, incident in which a duplex in Ketchikan caught fire. Brian Calvin and his wife, child and mother-in-law lived in the upper unit, and the lower unit housed Tracy Harrell, her husband and her mother, Winnie Sue Willis. The fire destroyed the duplex and as a result of the fire, Willis died.

An investigator discovered in October 2014 that it was "more probable than not" that the cause of the fire was Carney's fish smoker, according to the Supreme Court's opinion.

Representing Willis' estate, Tracy Harrell and her other daughter, Cindy Kloxin, sued Calvin on wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims. The plaintiffs filed the suit on July 20, 2015, two years and nine days after the house fire. Calvin moved for summary judgment based on a statute of limitations defense. 

In their defense, Harrell and Kloxin argued that the statute of limitations was excused due to a discovery rule.

The Superior Court granted summary judgment to Calvin, finding that the two-year statute of limitations did apply to the case and relied on evidence that the plaintiffs knew by the day after the fire that Willis had died in the house fire that was, at that time, possibly caused by Calvin's fish smoker. The court also awarded Calvin with attorneys fees.

The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the discovery rule should toll the two-year statute of limitations and that the court "abused its discretion in assessing attorneys fees." 

The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court's judgment, finding that two years is the limitation for a wrongful death claim and that the plaintiffs had enough information to file the suit well before the two-year limit.

The court added that the Superior Court did not err in making the plaintiffs responsible for Calvin's legal fees because the plaintiffs litigated "in a personal rather than 'representative' capacity" when they brought individual claims for negligent infliction and emotional distress.

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