In the aftermath of a structure fire people who have lost property, suffered injuries, or lost loved ones will sometimes pursue lawsuits against anyone who might bear responsibility for the fire. In circumstances where a building was not compliant with state or local fire regulations, injured parties may wonder if a fire department’s failure to make adequate inspections could make it legally liable for some of the damages caused by the fire.
Las Vegas building inspection process
The Clark County and Las Vegas fire codes provide several points when a fire inspection is required:
- Prior to and during construction. Before construction begins the plans for a new building are reviewed by county inspectors for compliance with fire safety guidelines. During construction fire inspections are routinely completed to ensure that the structure is code compliant.
- As part of business licensing. A wide range of businesses must carry special permits in connection with their general business license. Businesses that involve combustible materials, like gas stations or auto repair shops, are a few examples. Restaurants, bars, and warehouses must also comply with various requirements, like adequate evacuation routes and signage. Special events are also required to obtain fire safety permits.
- Annual renewals. Holders of permits and licenses with annual renewal requirements must have their premises inspected as part of the renewal process.
Nevada law shields inspectors and their departments from liability
The obligation to comply with fire codes ultimately rests with the property’s owner and operator. As a practical matter that makes sense: the people who routinely maintain a building are in the best position to ensure that it is safe, while an inspector can verify that a structure is safe only on the day of the inspection.
Nevada has codified the common law “public duty doctrine,” NRS 41.033, which shields state and local inspectors and their employers from liability for failing to inspect a property or failing to discover a hazard, regardless of whether an inspection was made. In normal circumstances this shield prevents a lawsuit even if there is an affirmative obligation to inspect.
A plaintiff may be able to go forward with a lawsuit involving an inspection agency only if the agency had actual knowledge of a deficiency and did not take action to correct it, such as by granting a business or construction permit despite a failed inspection. Courts have held that a government agency may be held liable despite NRS 41.033 if the defect was so obvious that anyone with knowledge of the applicable code would have recognized it. Davenport v. County of Clark, 111 Nev. 467 (1995). The knowledge exception is fairly narrow: the plaintiff must prove actual knowledge. It’s not enough to argue that the agency had implied knowledge (i.e., the hazard could be inferred from other facts) or constructive notice of the hazard. The inspector or agency needed to be aware of the specific hazard at issue, and did nothing to prevent it.
GGRM is a Las Vegas personal injury law firm
In most circumstances involving structure fires an injured person’s best option for recovering compensation will be to pursue a lawsuit against the building’s owner and operator, as well as their insurers, rather than a government entity. But given the right facts an agency with an inspection duty could be implicated in a fire. For over 45 years the law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez has represented personal injury clients in the Las Vegas area. Call us today for a free attorney consultation at 702-388-4476 or send us a request on our contact page.