Family of Attorney Who Died in Blaze Wins $16.6 Million

Times Staff Writer

The widow of a young attorney who died in an office fire will receive $1.6 million in cash and her daughter will receive $15 million over her lifetime under a settlement of their lawsuit made Wednesday.

The beneficiaries are Kathy Harrison, 36, and her daughter, Lindsey, who was 7 months old when her father, Wesley Harrison, 33, died in the newly rehabilitated Santa Ana office building that burned nine days before Christmas, 1983.

"Wes Harrison was a very well-respected young lawyer; he was honest, decent and well liked," said Mark P. Robinson Jr., who, with his partner, Gordon G. Phillips Jr., represented the widow and child.

"This was a tragedy that shocked the community," Robinson said. "The fire should not have occurred."

IBM Paid $480,000

IBM, which built the electric typewriter that triggered the blaze, paid $480,000. Seven other firms contributed, including the owner and developer of the building, the Builders Exchange Assn., which paid $455,000, and the general contractor, J. Ray Construction Inc., which paid $425,000. None of the defendants admitted any liability.

Robinson's lawsuit claimed the on-off switch on the IBM Selectric typewriter was defective and started the fire, that those who designed and manufactured partitions in the office failed to provide fire-retardant material, and that the builder failed to install a sprinkler system or use fire-retardant building materials.

Another lawsuit filed against the same defendants by Harrison's law firm for property damage and personal injury is still pending. The law firm of Horton, Barbaro & Reilly asked for $2.5 million in recent talks, which are to resume later this week, according to Jay C. Horton, a partner.

The firm's offices in the newly renovated Builders Exchange Building were gutted and five employees were injured. Most of the firm's files were destroyed.

Dozens Sought Settlement

More than three dozen lawyers and representatives of insurance firms met for two days this week trying to work out a settlement of the complex litigation. They met with former Orange County Superior Court Judge H. Warren Knight, who heads a private firm that helps parties resolve litigation before trials.

"Judge Knight did an incredible job in this case," Robinson said. "It would have taken three months, at a minimum, to try in court. It's a good example of how well things can be settled outside the legal system."

Knight said there were so many people involved that he decided to rent a conference room in a hotel. "We provided coffee and sandwiches and had a marathon settlement conference," he explained, adding: "We finally got it settled."

Robinson said the current value of the settlement is $1.85 million. The child, he added, will receive monthly payments for life, plus extra funds for college, which when figured over a normal lifetime amounts to about $15 million.

Claimed Defective Switch

Both lawsuits--the Harrisons' and Horton's--alleged that the IBM Selectric III typewriter was equipped with a defective on-off switch which set off the blaze.

Robinson said his research showed that the typewriter had inadequate insulation and included flammable plastic parts. The switch is in close proximity to a container holding a flammable liquid print for the machine, Robinson pointed out.

Lucerne Products, the firm that made the on-off switch for IBM, contributed $75,000.

A secretary working late in the office at about 9 o'clock that Friday night noticed the typewriter smoking. She told Horton, who left to find a fire extinguisher but returned to find the fire out of control.

Horton and other employees escaped the blaze, but Horton returned to the burning building when he realized that Harrison had not managed to get out. He said he could hear Harrison but could not find him as he, Horton, crawled along in the smoke-filled interior.

The Harrisons' lawsuit also claimed that the firms that designed the office failed to provide fire-retardant materials.

Partition Maker

Knoll International Inc., which made the partitions separating secretarial work stations, contributed $100,000. The lawsuit claimed that the material covering the partitions, by which the fire spread to the ceiling, was supposed to be fire retardant but was not.

Another defendant, Guilford Mills, which manufactured the material, contributed $25,000.

Two office design firms also contributed, Real-Grobman paying $145,000 and Design West $20,000, Robinson said.

The developers, general contractor and architect failed to install automatic fire sprinklers above the basement level, and failed to use fire-retardant building materials, according to the lawsuit.

In addition to the Builders Exchange Assn. and J. Ray Construction, an architectural firm named 30th Street Architects Inc. contributed $125,000, Robinson said.

Through her lawyer, Kathy Harrison declined comment.

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