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Emily Welker, Published February 24 2014

Parents of man who died in Fargo apartment fire sue Goldmark; company denies claim it didn't fix faulty alarms

FARGO – One of the region’s largest landlords has been slapped with a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of a man who died in a fire in one of its rental apartments.

Parents of James Peyton allege in the lawsuit that Peyton and his roommate told Goldmark Property Management before the fatal fire that the smoke alarms were malfunctioning in their apartment at Ashbury Apartments, 4345 1oth Ave. S.

The 31-year-old died in a fire during the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2012. He slept through a fire that began in the kitchen of the apartment, not hearing any alarms go off and dying due to smoke inhalation, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that a maintenance worker removed faulty smoke detectors from the men’s apartment, but Goldmark didn’t replace or repair them.

Kurt Bollman, Goldmark’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said the company was planning to file a response in court.

“We completely and categorically deny the allegations, but we’ll handle this in a court of law,” Bollman said Monday.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Cass County District Court, asks for at least $100,000 for medical and cremation expenses and emotional distress.

Bollman said the family and Goldmark had tried to reach a settlement out of court – through mediation – prior to Peyton’s family filing the suit.

Goldmark, which is based in Fargo, says it manages more than 12,000 apartment units in 40 communities in four states – also including Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota.

Incident report

According to the Fargo fire marshal’s incident report on the fire, firefighters were called by a woman at the apartment building saying she noticed smoke from the first floor coming up the stairs to her apartment in the building.

The caller said the “alarm system” in the building was not working at the time, the incident report states.

Firefighters tried to determine which unit the fire was coming from, but no one was answering the doors. One firefighter noticed smoke marks and soot coming from the top of an apartment door and forced it open to find the apartment filled with dark, black smoke, and a man lying on his back near the patio door.

The door was locked or frozen shut, the report says, and firefighters had to break out windows to get ventilation in the apartment unit.

The only smoke alarm working in the apartment was the one in the south bedroom, according to the report. Generally, smoke detectors are recommended for each bedroom and for public spaces on each floor.

Peyton was taken by ambulance to Essentia Health, where he was pronounced dead from smoke inhalation, according to a death report from the North Dakota State Medical Examiner.

The cause of the kitchen fire wasn’t determined by investigators.

The fire marshal’s report does say Peyton’s impairment by alcohol might be a contributing factor to both his death and the ignition of the fire.

Lisa Anderson, who made the first 911 call, told The Forum at the time that Peyton’s roommate hadn’t been home during the fire.

Anderson, who lived up the stairs and across the hall from the two men, said she had walked through thick, stinging smoke to Peyton’s door while checking the halls, but she didn’t try to open it.

Anderson told The Forum she heard a smoke detector going off in Peyton’s apartment, but that it sounded faint and far-off.

Phone messages left for Peyton’s parents, Dwayne and Donna Peyton, and their attorneys, were not returned Monday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541