A Richland County jury has awarded $110,000 to the estate of an elderly woman who choked to death when an arsonist set her apartment building on fire in January 2017.
True Henderson, 80, died a “horrible death” in the bedroom of her Plantation Court Apartments unit, her attorney, Richard “Dick” Harpootlian of Columbia, said. Henderson died in her bedroom during the blaze, which was started in a common area and spread throughout the building.
Smoke and heat filled Henderson’s downstairs apartment, according to her complaint. Henderson, in bed at the time, stood up and attempted to move before being overcome and falling back across the bed, according to court records.
“There was massive amounts of soot found in her airway—she inhaled the soot,” Harpootlian said in court. “You don’t inhale after you’re dead. You have to be alive. …she tried to get out and didn’t make it.”
At the time, news outlets had reported six other fires in the area, between late November and mid-December 2016. At least two of those fires were lit in Henderson’s complex—one of them in an adjacent building and the other in her building—her estate alleged. Henderson’s building was renovated before the fire that killed her, but the estate claimed that none of the locks or key codes to outside doors were changed, and that they didn’t close and lock as they were designed to do, allowing “unfettered access by anyone.”
The complaint alleged that the buildings also did not have automatic fire suppression systems or adequate smoke and fire detection devices, and that the defendants—both the complex and its management company—did nothing to warn residents of a potential arsonist who had previously started fires in the complex.
A Columbia firefighter was questioned, but cleared, in the case. Harpootlian said that no one has been arrested.
An attorney for the defendants, Damon Wlodarczyk of Riley Pope & Laney in Columbia, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The jury returned its verdict in the estate’s favor on Sept. 27. Harpootlian said that he cannot comment until post-trial motions are ruled on.
VERDICT REPORT—WRONGFUL DEATH
Case name: Thomas Erskine Clarke, et al. v. Plantation Court Apartments
Case No.: 2017 CP 40 02527
Court: Richland County Circuit Court
Judge: Casey Manning
Date of verdict: Sept. 27
Attorneys for plaintiffs: Richard “Dick” Harpootlian of Columbia
Attorneys for defendants: Damon Wlodarczyk of Riley Pope & Laney in Columbia