Plaintiff's mother dies in fire. Cause disputed. $3M. San Francisco County.


Apartment fire blamed on faulty wiring, lack of maintenance.

The Case

  • Case Name: Aurora Belo Black and Maria Lourdes Ramona S. Belo v. BallyHallinan Family, LLC
  • Court and Case Number: San Francisco County Superior Cour / CGC-16-552777
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Monday, May 07, 2018
  • Date Action was Filed: Tuesday, June 28, 2016
  • Type of Case: Wrongful Death
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Garrett L. Wong
  • Plaintiffs:
    Aurora Belo Black
    Maria Lourdes Ramona S. Belo (as part of claim for the estate that was dismissed before trial.)
  • Defendants:
    BallyHallinan Family, LLC
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $3,000,000
  • Contributory/Comparative Negligence: BallyHallinan Properties: 100%
  • Non-Economic Damages:

    Past: $1,500,000

    Future: $1,500,000

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Altair Law, LLP by Andje M. Medina, San Francisco.

    Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger by Conor Kelly, San Francisco.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman LLP by David S. Webster and Sarah E. Fama, Concord.

The Experts

  • Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):

    Robert Griswold, CPM, real estate management, San Diego.

    John Loud, PE, CFEI, electrical engineering, Menlo Park.


  • Defendant's Technical Expert(s):

    Daniel Bornstein, Esq.,  real estate management, San Francisco.

    Bryan Spitulski, CFEI,  fire safety, Modesto.

    Steven Reed, CFEI,  fire cause investigation, Boise, ID.

    Brian Vandal, PE, CFEI, electrical engineering, San Jose.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    Decedent Lorraine Belo was home on June 29, 2014 shortly after 10:00 p.m. when a fire started in her hallway closet adjacent to her front door. Her front door was quickly engulfed in flames. It is unknown whether the decedent was awake or asleep at the time the fire started. The decedent was found unconscious from smoke inhalation on the floor underneath her kitchen window, which served as an access point to her fire escape. She was transported to the hospital where she remained for nine days before passing away from complications associated with smoke inhalation. She lived alone and was unmarried. Plaintiff was Lorraine’s only child who was 29 years old at the time and living out of state. The two had a strained relationship at the time of the death. All of the damages sought were non-economic.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    Plaintiff contended a carelessly installed electrical outlet overheated and started a fire in a closet outlet. That electrical outlet was unpermitted and in violation of building codes.

    According to the on-site property manager, Lorraine had made complaints about her electrical system including requests for additional electrical outlets and the installation of GFI outlets. Despite her complaints, no inspection or repairs were ever made. Plaintiff’s experts testified that the subject electrical outlet was ungrounded – meaning that there was no ground wire that would trip the circuit breaker in the event of an electrical short – and that it was installed in a careless manner with loose, resistive wiring. Plaintiff contended that the faulty wiring caused the electrical outlet to overheat and start the fire.

    Plaintiff’s theory was supported by the testimony of the San Francisco Fire Department Arson Investigator who also determined that the fire was electrical in nature.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    Defendant BallyHallinan Properties is a family-run corporation that owns and self-manages close to 200 rental units in San Francisco. The defendant had owned the forty-unit building at 627 Taylor Street in San Francisco where this fire occurred, since the 1930s.

    Defendant denied the fire was electrical. Defendant’s experts testified that based on photographs of the outlet, they believed it was grounded. The defendant’s experts opined that the fire damage in and around the outlet suggested it was attacked externally by fire rather than being the source of the fire.

    The defendant’s experts did not put forth an alternative fire cause, but defendant questioned the mental condition of the decedent throughout trial and suggested the decedent had intentionally started the fire herself. Defendant contended that the decedent, who defendant described as a hoarder, was responsible for starting the fire, but failed to produce any credible evidence on fire cause. In closing, defendant argued that despite the liability dispute, the plaintiff and her mother were estranged at the time of the death and therefore plaintiff had not been harmed and was not entitled to any damages.

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:

    Wrongful death damages, including the loss of her mother’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support. 

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff §998 Demand: $1,500,000 – hand served on March 15, 2018.
  • Defendant Offer during Trial: On the first day of trial – $150,000.

Additional Notes

Plaintiff’s verdict exceeded a CCP 998 offer to compromise which was issued approximately 30 days before trial. As a result, plaintiff is entitled to prejudgment interest on the entire verdict and post-offer expert fees.