Action: Civil rights
Case name: Danielle Washington as personal representative of the estate of Calvin Witherspoon, Jr. v. Housing Authority of the city of Columbia (aka Columbia Housing Authority)
Court/case no.: U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina / 3:21-cv-00148-JFA
Judge: Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr.; mediator William B. “Kip” Darwin Jr.
Amount: $2 million
Date: Oct. 30, 2023
Most helpful expert:
Attorneys: Richard A. Hricik of The Law Offices of Richard A. Hricik, Mount Pleasant, and Amanda C. Duré of Pangia Law Group, Washington D.C. (for the plaintiff)
This was a 42 USC 1983 civil rights lawsuit brought against the Columbia Housing Authority on behalf of the family of Calvin J. Witherspoon, Jr. who died from carbon monoxide poisoning on Jan. 17, 2019, at the Allen Benedict Court Apartments in Columbia.
The poisoning was caused by a fuel-fired furnace in the Columbia Housing Authority complex. The Columbia fire chief’s investigation noted that there were no carbon monoxide detectors in any unit as was required by the city and state fire codes and that the death was entirely preventable through regular furnace maintenance.
The investigation also revealed more than 869 code violations, including faulty and missing smoke detectors, exposed wires, stoves leaking natural gas and expired fire extinguishers. The conditions resulted in the fire chief ordering the evacuation of all tenants as the conditions, “constituted a clear and imminent threat to human life, safety, or health.”
The housing authority subsequently razed the property.
Plaintiff alleged that the authority acted with “deliberate indifference to the risk of harm” in its maintenance of the complex, including failing to install carbon monoxide alarms as required by law, resulting in Witherspoon’s death.
The District Court dismissed the case in August 2021 on grounds that included the authority didn’t have actual knowledge of a prior carbon monoxide leak and found no constitutional rights violation. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit on an appeal, stating: “At bottom, the facts alleged in this case shock the conscience: a public housing authority’s deliberate indifference to a risk of harm that threatened numerous families living in low-income housing. What is more, two men died because of that indifference, several more were hospitalized, and an entire community was evacuated. Substantive due process exists as the ‘last line of defense’ against such official abuses of power that are so arbitrary as to shock the conscience of the court.”
After the Appeals Court’s decision, the parties entered settlement negotiations. An agreement was reached that the authority’s insurer would pay the remainder of its policy of $400,000 and the authority would pay $1.6 million.