Assisted living center sued after fire code violations; owner feels 'unfairly' treated

srobertsjr@vagazette.com

James City County settled a lawsuit against a Grove assisted living center after part of the center’s sprinkler system was found to be broken during an annual inspection.

The county sued Colonial Manor on May 14 after months of back and forth between the county’s fire safety office and Colonial Manor administrators, according to documents filed in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court.

About 55 residents live at the facility, which touts itself as an affordable senior living option for Williamsburg residents, according to facility administrator and owner Dr. Pedro Becerra.

Months after it was filed, Becerra settled the lawsuit with the county after he admitted guilt and resolved the fire code violations, according to court documents.

However, the process to solve the violations took nearly five months after an annual fire inspection turned up problems.

Fire code violations

On Feb. 8, an annual inspection of Colonial Manor by James City County Assistant Fire Marshal Michelle Toutaint turned up several fire code violations including a “dry” sprinkler system that was out of service, according to court documents. In addition, a fire extinguisher needed to be serviced and an emergency escape light was out

The “dry” sprinkler system operates without water in its pipes unless there is a fire, which causes a valve to release water into the pipes, James City County Fire Marshal Kenny Driscoll explained.

Toutaint told the assistant administrator of the building, Amy Smith, she would return Feb. 28 to reinspect the facility, according to court documents. Toutaint then told Smith the facility would need to have the fire code violations fixed or have a vendor under contract do the repairs.

The facility was put under a legally required fire watch, with one employee whose sole responsibility was to walk the building looking for fires and a means of calling 911, according to court documents.

Becerra said between the first inspection and the scheduled reinspection, he and Smith contacted their primary fire safety vendor, Portsmouth-based Fire and Life Safety America, for bids on fixing the system instead of replacing it.

The vendor tried to mend the broken pipes in February, but the patches did not hold, Becerra said.

The facility had the other fire code violations taken care of, but on Feb. 28, Smith told Toutaint the sprinkler system was out of service, but the facility had received quotes to repair the problems, according to court documents.

On March 26, Toutaint delivered a notice of violation to Colonial Manor for violating the fire code, according to court documents. The notice gave the facility 30 days to fix the sprinkler system or administrators could face jail time, fines, fees and further legal action.

By May 1, conversations between the facility and the county had gone nowhere and the system remained broken, according to court documents. The facility continued to operate under the fire watch.

“Based on the lack of movement on the part of Dr. Becerra and Colonial Manor to address the broken dry sprinkler system, (assistant fire marshal) Toutaint and Fire Marshall Kenny Driscoll, and Building Official Tom Coghill met with County Attorney Adam Kinsman,” one court filing read.

Becerra said that as a small-business owner, he struggled to fight denied insurance claims on the broken system. Becerra said he filed insurance claims on the system immediately after he was made aware of the fire code violation.

On May 2, the county delivered a final warning to Colonial Manor that said the county would seek legal action if there was any further delay, according to court documents. The county fire marshal’s office contacted the vendor, Fire and Life Safety America, with whom Colonial Manor said it was negotiating.

The fire marshal’s office routinely works with vendors, according to Driscoll, so it was not out of the ordinary for the office to contact the vendor to see if a contract had been signed for the Colonial Manor sprinkler system project.

But by the start of the next week, the vendor told the county that it “would no longer be willing to perform any work, repairs or replacement of the dry sprinkler system” at Colonial Manor, according to court documents.

The vendor “did not wish to become involved with the project after submitting three (3) different options to Dr. Becerra in February 2018,” according to court documents.

The vendor told the county it wasn’t aware of the pending notice of violation against Colonial Manor, according to court documents.

Becerra said he wasn’t treated fairly by the fire marshal’s office.

He contends the notification in May by the county to Fire and Life Safety America about the notice of violation against Colonial Manor led to their withdrawal from the needed repairs, further delaying the fix.

“It was a tremendous disservice,” Becerra said of the notification. “It was very harmful for the inspector to do that.”

Just as the vendor pulled out from the project, Becerra left for his native Spain for a family emergency, he said.

“We can’t control where he is, we took the steps that we took,” Driscoll said of Becerra. “We started the civil proceedings and secured the other warrant whether he was in town or not.”

On May 8, Becerra visited Driscoll at the fire marshal’s office, according to court documents. Driscoll told Becerra he’d run out of time and now the county sought legal action.

“To my surprise when I came back from overseas, the fire marshall had already sued me,” Becerra said.

Their day in court

The county attorney’s office filed an injunction in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court on May 14 to compel Colonial Manor to fix the fire code violations.

“Generally, an injunction is sort of the end of the road — the last action we’ll take,” assistant county attorney Elizabeth Parman said. “We want to make sure buildings are safe, especially buildings where people live and work.”

The injunction asked the court to declare Becerra in violation of the fire code and order Colonial Manor to repair the sprinkler system, but it was far from the end of the road.

On June 19, four months after the violations were discovered, the county moved for the court to rule against Becerra after he did not respond to its May lawsuit.

“To date, no work has been done to repair or replace the system and Dr. Becerra-Sely has not submitted an executed contract for repair or replacement of the system,” the June 19 court filing states. “The lives, health, and safety of the residents of Colonial Manor are in jeopardy.”

The county asked the court to shutter the doors of the assisted living facility and force Becerra to pay for alternative living arrangements until the sprinkler system was fixed, according to the court filing.

Becerra disagrees with the June filing and said in a Sept. 19 interview that the sprinkler system took six to eight weeks to fix and was repaired by July 12 — about five months after the first inspection.

He said while he didn’t have a contract with Fire and Life Safety before the lawsuit, he was working to negotiate a contract with them, and the county’s notification to the vendor undermined those negotiations.

“At no point were people in danger of any kind,” Becerra said.

However, Driscoll said the 55 residents who live at the facility were “not as safe as they would be with the entire sprinkler system in service.”

Despite Becerra’s dispute with the county and complaints about the way the case was handled, he and Colonial Manor settled the case in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court on July 25.

“We were somewhat lenient with him, which is why we ultimately did not close down the facility,” Parman said.

On Aug. 21, Becerra pleaded guilty in Williamsburg-James City County General District Court to a misdemeanor criminal charge of violating the state fire code, according to online court records.

Those records said Becerra was given a suspended sentence of four days in jail and was ordered to pay $1,101 in fines and fees within one year.

On top of the fine, Becerra said, he spent about $48,000 to have the sprinkler system fixed.

The total cost of the project was slightly higher than the original Fire and Life Safety America quoted costs, Becerra said. He blames those higher costs on the fire marshal’s office, as he said he had the new vendor expedite the installation of the new sprinkler system.

At the same time, Becerra said the process didn’t hurt the facility financially as much as the integrity of what he stands for.

“The biggest hurt is the credibility to the public,” Becerra said.

But for Driscoll, the case is cut and dry: Colonial Manor residents were in danger because of the fire code violations.

“(We) discovered the violation, gave him time to get it fixed, scheduled several re-inspections to come back and see that it had been fixed, and it was not fixed.”

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329 and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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