Former Patient Set Blaze : Widow Files 2 Suits in Fatal Arson Fire

Times Staff Writer

Ava Gawronski, the psychiatric social worker who nearly died from burns received in an arson fire that killed her husband, has sued three government agencies, four businesses and a psychiatrist for personal injuries and wrongful death.

Gawronski, 35, claims in two separate suits that the defendants could have prevented the Jan. 6, 1982, fire, which was set by one of her former patients.

Gawronski spent nine months in the Brotman Memorial Hospital burn ward with burns on 80% of her body. Her husband died of injuries suffered in the fire. The couple's infant daughter, Sara, was rescued by a neighbor and escaped injury.

Last summer, the former Gawronski patient, John William Clark, 40, was convicted of setting fire to the Gawronskis' Rancho Park home by dousing it with two buckets of gasoline and igniting it. Clark was also convicted of the murder of Ava Gawronski's husband, David, the attempted murder of Ava Gawronski and the couple's infant daughter, Sara, now 4, and the rape of his estranged wife, Joy Clark, which had occurred earlier. Clark was sentenced to death.

Gawronski's first lawsuit names the owners and employees of the AM-PM Mini-Mart where Clark bought two buckets of gasoline, and the Atlantic Richfield Co., which franchises the mini-mart.

"We feel that the lawsuit is totally without merit and plan to defend it as vigorously as we can," said Robert Loll, an ARCO spokesman.

The second lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount of money for personal injuries, wrongful death and property damage and names the County of Los Angeles, the city of Santa Monica, the state of California and Pittway Corp., the company that manufactured the security equipment that allegedly failed to operate when Clark broke into the Gawronski house to start the fire, according to the suit.

The second suit also originally named PermaGuard Security Systems Inc., the company that installed the security system, and Dr. Joseph Stein, the psychiatrist who treated Clark after Gawronski dismissed him as a patient.

PermaGuard settled out of court last year for $500,000, according to Gawronski's attorney, Michael Dan. Stein settled for $70,000 last year, according to court records. Gawronski had claimed that Stein "knew of the dangerous propensities and likelihood that William Clark would use violence to injure Ava Gawronski and her loved ones and yet failed to properly act." Stein and PermaGuard Security Systems have been dropped from the second lawsuit.

The state is being sued for providing Clark with Gawronski's home address through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The state, the county and Santa Monica are accused of negligence for failing to charge Clark with attempted murder after his first arrest in November, 1981, after he forced Gawronski's car off the road and attacked her with an ice ax. She escaped unharmed.

After his arrest Clark was charged with felony assault and attempted rape. At that time he was also charged with the rape of his estranged wife, Joy Clark. Clark's bail would have been higher, the suit alleges, if he had been charged with attempted murder instead of felony assault, and it would have been more difficult for him to produce the bail.

Santa Monica, the county, the state and Pittway deny the charges in Gawronski's suit, according to court records.

Pittway has denied liability for the system's alleged failure, contending that if it did not work it was through the negligence of the Gawronskis.

Representatives of Santa Monica are scheduled to appear at a hearing in Santa Monica Superior Court on Dec. 5, when the city will request that its portion of the lawsuit be dismissed. Santa Monica Deputy City Atty. Yvonne Binstock said, "A lot of the things claimed in the complaint are not the fault of the city."

Tim Cary of the state attorney general's office said the state has been served with the lawsuit but has not yet responded.

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