Columbia Housing Authority Held Accountable for Negligence Resulting in Tragic Death
In a groundbreaking case that sheds light on the importance of safe housing conditions, the Columbia Housing Authority has reached a $2 million settlement in a civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of Calvin J. Witherspoon, Jr. The lawsuit alleged that the authority’s negligence in maintaining the Allen Benedict Court Apartments led to Witherspoon’s tragic death from carbon monoxide poisoning. This landmark settlement serves as a stark reminder of the critical need for proper maintenance and adherence to safety regulations in public housing complexes.
A Preventable Tragedy Unveils Systemic Failures
Witherspoon’s untimely death on January 17, 2019, was a result of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty fuel-fired furnace in the Columbia Housing Authority complex. Shockingly, the investigation conducted by the Columbia fire chief revealed a staggering 869 code violations, including the absence of carbon monoxide detectors, faulty smoke detectors, exposed wires, and other hazardous conditions. These violations not only endangered the lives of the tenants but also violated city and state fire codes.
The dire conditions prompted the fire chief to order the immediate evacuation of all tenants, deeming the situation a clear and imminent threat to human life, safety, and health. The housing authority responded by demolishing the property, acknowledging the severity of the situation and the need for drastic action.
Allegations of Deliberate Indifference and Constitutional Violations
The lawsuit filed by Danielle Washington, as the personal representative of Calvin J. Witherspoon, Jr.’s estate, accused the Columbia Housing Authority of acting with deliberate indifference to the risk of harm. The plaintiff argued that the authority failed to install carbon monoxide alarms as required by law, directly contributing to Witherspoon’s death.
Initially, the District Court dismissed the case in August 2021, citing the lack of actual knowledge of a prior carbon monoxide leak and finding no violation of constitutional rights. However, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit on appeal, emphasizing the shocking nature of the alleged facts and the authority’s indifference towards the safety of low-income housing residents. The court stated that substantive due process serves as the “last line of defense” against such arbitrary abuses of power that shock the conscience of the court.
Landmark Settlement and Accountability
Following the Appeals Court’s decision, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations, ultimately reaching an agreement. The Columbia Housing Authority’s insurer will pay the remaining $400,000 of its policy, while the authority itself will contribute $1.6 million. This settlement not only provides some measure of justice for Witherspoon’s family but also holds the housing authority accountable for its negligence and failure to prioritize the safety of its residents.
The $2 million settlement in the civil rights lawsuit against the Columbia Housing Authority serves as a powerful reminder of the need for safe and well-maintained housing conditions. Witherspoon’s tragic death and the subsequent evacuation of the Allen Benedict Court Apartments exposed systemic failures and violations of basic safety regulations. This landmark case highlights the importance of proper maintenance, adherence to safety codes, and the responsibility of housing authorities to ensure the well-being of their residents. The settlement brings a sense of closure to Witherspoon’s family while also serving as a call to action for improved oversight and accountability in public housing complexes nationwide.