Some lawsuits stemming from 2012 Bellingham marina fire being settled

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 31, 2014 

Marina fire in Bellingham

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire that broke out Friday morning, March 30, 2012, in a boathouse on the East G dock at Squalicum Harbor. Jim Langei and his wife, Sterling Taylor, had been living on their boat when the early-morning fire erupted, destroying 12 boats. Both died of smoke inhalation.

RUSS KENDALL — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Some insurance-related legal disputes stemming from property damage in the 2012 Squalicum Harbor fire are being settled, but a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Port of Bellingham is still pending.

The wrongful death case was filed in November 2013 in Whatcom County Superior Court by representatives of the estates of James Langei and Sterling Taylor, the Bellingham couple killed when fire roared through a Squalicum Harbor boathouse on March 30, 2012. They had been living aboard the 42-foot yacht Breakwind, moored inside the boathouse at the time of the fire.

The wrongful death suit contends the port's negligence was to blame for the deaths because the port was responsible for the system that provided electricity to the port-owned dock where the privately owned boathouse was located. Investigators believe that an electrical problem triggered the fire, although the exact cause has not been pinpointed.

The suit also contends the fire-suppression system on the dock was inadequate, and the city-owned fireboat had been taken out of service about a year before.

The lawsuit does not yet specify the amount of damages being sought, but seeks compensation for the pain and suffering that Langei and Taylor endured before their deaths, as well as the impact on their survivors and the loss of the boat.

The port's insurer, Lexington Insurance Co., had filed a lawsuit in federal court in June 2012 against Langei's estate, contending that a possible cause of the fire was the overloading of electrical circuits aboard the vessel itself.

Port attorneys argued that the wrongful death case should be stayed while the federal court considered the legal issues, but Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder overruled those arguments, allowing the local lawsuit to proceed.

Since the fire, the city has approved tougher fire codes for the marina, including more robust water lines on the port's docks, and eventual installation of sprinkler systems inside the privately owned boathouses on the port's docks. A new fireboat is also in the works.

At their Tuesday, April 1, meeting, port commissioners will consider proposed legal settlements of damage claims with six boat owners whose pleasure craft were destroyed in the fire. Six similar settlements were approved in February.

In the six cases already settled, the boat owners and their insurance companies agreed to pay the port and the port's insurance companies a total of $675,000. That sum allowed the port to recover the $125,000 deductible on its insurance coverage for fire damage, with the rest of the money going to reimburse the port's insurance companies for a portion of the payments the insurer had already made to the port to cover the $1.8 million in damages resulting from the fire.

Port Executive Director Rob Fix said the payments to the port from the other boat owners have nothing to do with a finding of fault or blame. The moorage agreements that boat owners sign when they lease a marina slip contain "hold harmless" language, in which the boat owner and the boat owner's insurer agree to cover the port's losses in the event of a fire, including the fire damage and the post-fire cleanup of the charred remains of the vessels.

"No fault has been found," Fix said. "We don't know the cause of the fire."

While the settlements are mostly about an exchange of money between insurance companies at this point, Fix said the deals also enable the port to recover its portion of financial losses.

"The taxpayer should not be out a deductible," Fix said.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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