Toddler dies in fire; defense arbitration award in wrongful death. San Bernardino County.


Fire at night causes family to flee apartment, but toddler dies in bedroom. Plaintiffs blame lack of adequate smoke detector.

The Case

  • Case Name: Celis v. 1995 Grett Trust
  • Court and Case Number: SBSC NO. CIVVS 1202806 (Victorville)
  • Date of Arbitration Award : Wednesday, June 03, 2015
  • Type of Case: Wrongful Death
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Darrel Forgey
  • Plaintiffs:
    Estrella Celis
    Jeremiah Spellings
  • Defendants:
    1995 Grett Trust
  • Type of Result: Arbitration Award

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: Award for defendants, with a finding of no liability under any of plaintiffs' theories. (Plaintiffs will receive $25,000 due to high/low agreement)
  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 3 days of live, video and deposition testimony from over 2 dozen parties, witnesses and experts.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    R. Rex Parris Law Firm by Ryan Kahl and Breanna Kenyon, Lancaster.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Demler, Armstrong & Rowland, LLP by Terry A. Rowland, Long Beach.


The Experts

  • Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):

    Brad Avrit, safety engineering, Los Angeles.

  • Defendant's Technical Expert(s):

    Robert Griswold, property management, San Diego.

    Wayne Martin, fire codes, Los Angeles.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    This personal injury/wrongful death lawsuit arose out of a fire that occurred on June 9, 2010 at a duplex in Victorville that was rented by plaintiffs from defendant 1995 Grett Trust.  Plaintiffs Estrella Celis and Jeremiah Spellings were asleep in the apartment, along with 2-year-old Noah Stumbaugh. Celis and Spellings escaped, but Noah Stumbaugh died in the fire.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    That residence had multiple code violations including missing or insufficient smoke detectors which would have alerted the mother earlier and in time to rescue her son. Expert Avrit testified that a detector in the bedroom would have saved the child's life and that if there was a detector in the hallway (disputed) it would not have been loud enough. Avrit also testified that work had been done requiring permits that were not taken out, thus inspectors were not on site to correct code and safety issues.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    That several neighbors heard an alarm; that plaintiff inexplicably left her son behind while she escaped; that the older child started the fire and that no code upgrades for detectors in every bedroom was required.

Additional Notes

Plaintiffs demanded the policy limits early in the case and defendants made a less than six figure offer.  The parties stipulated to binding arbitration with a "high-low" provision, with a "cap" at the insurance policy limits and a guaranteed "floor" of $25,000, regardless of the arbitrator's assessment of liability and damages.