Parents sue landlord after son dies in apartment fire

The parents of a man who burned to death in an apartment building have sued the landlord, alleging that Frank McHugh's negligence of fire safety codes contributed to the death of their son and the injuries of his roommate.

The parents of Mayqui Diaz allege that the security bars on his ground-floor apartment in the Pico Union neighborhood had been illegally wired shut, trapping him when he tried to escape from the March 2008 fire. Neighbors eventually responded to his screams and pried the bars off in time to save his roommate, the suit said, but it was too late for Diaz and he died the next day at a hospital.

The suit also charges that McHugh, who owns more than 100 rental properties in Los Angeles and has been previously targeted by prosecutors for unsafe conditions, had been cited for similar fire code violations 46 times over the previous eight years.

"It is impossible not to conclude that McHugh knew full well he was purposefully and illegally exposing his tenants to catastrophic injury and death," the suit said. Noe Duran, the roommate who escaped the fire, is also a party to the suit.

McHugh could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Greg Stannard, said he had not had time to review the case and could not comment.

McHugh is under a court order to sell all his rental properties in Los Angeles by the fall of 2010 as part of a plea agreement to avoid jail time for fire and habitability violations.

City officials have been trying to regulate McHugh for decades. In the 1980s, then-City Atty. Ira Reiner accused McHugh, now 84, of dealing in "blood money" and threatened to put him in jail.

But the landlord continued to amass buildings and a record of violating health and safety codes. Last summer, his lawyer told city officials that he owned more than 140, housing about 8,000 people, many of them impoverished immigrants in the city's core.

Tenants and their advocates say the conditions in his buildings caused health risks such as lead poisoning, asthma and ear infections caused by allergy to cockroaches.

The Diaz suit accuses McHugh of putting tenants at risk from fires.

The fire began when a young woman in the apartment, apparently distraught about breaking up with her boyfriend, lighted herself on fire, according to a police report about the incident. She died from her burns.

Police and fire reports about the incident do not mention security bars as a factor in the injuries or deaths. In general, officials said, fire investigators would note any unsafe conditions.

Antony Stuart, the lawyer for Diaz's family, said that if the bars had not been wired shut, his clients' son would still be alive.


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