A class action lawsuit has been filed against the owner of the industrial building in Richmond that caught fire earlier this month, forcing residents within a half-mile radius to evacuate. Additionally, the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office is looking to speak with recent or former employees of the warehouse as its investigation continues.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Wayne Superior Court, lists Seth Smith and his company, Cornerstone Trading Group LLC, as defendants.
Smith owned the former factory site, located at 308 NW F Street in Richmond, which had plastic materials stacked wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-roof, according to the city. Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said the fire apparently began in a tractor-trailer parked on the property and spread quickly.
A large plume of black smoke could be seen for miles when the building caught fire on April 11, and crews worked for several days to extinguish the blaze.
The State Fire Marshal’s office said air quality tests revealed asbestos in some of the debris that was sent into the sky and landed several miles away, including in parts of Ohio.
A cause of the fire has still not been determined. Snow said the fire was the responsibility of Smith, whom he called a “negligent business owner.”
The building, known as the My Way Trading Warehouse, was the subject of a 2019 cleanup order from the city’s Unsafe Building Commission. Smith challenged the order in court, but a judge affirmed the ruling in 2020. However, no changes were made to the property, according to the city.
The lawsuit names two residents as plaintiffs, Tushawn Craig and Marquetta Stokes, who live in the evacuation zone, as well as Limitless Pallets LLC, which was forced to close during the evacuation period, which ended five days after the fire broke out.
The plaintiffs believes the number of people who could join the class action suit could be close to 2,000 due to the impact of the fire.
The suit claims Smith was aware of the unsafe conditions at the warehouse but failed to take any steps to remedy the “ultra-hazardous conditions” in “blatant disregard for the safety and welfare” of nearby residents.
In addition to the residents who had to evacuate the immediate area, which the lawsuit estimates is about 2,000 people, the suit claims numerous businesses were “forced to cease operations for a substantial period of time, resulting in loss of customers and diminished profits.”
Additionally, many residents were unable to go to work and therefore lost income, while others experienced adverse health effects due to inhaling noxious gases and smoke, according to the lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs and other class members remain in, and display, fear and anxiety for their health and safety as a result of the harmful chemicals, fumes, debris, and asbestos released into the air, ground, and water from the fire at Defendants’ Industrial Facility, and possibility of additional incidents at the facility,” the suit said.
The plaintiffs are asking a jury trial for the case and seeking compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $25,000, as well as costs, fees and “other monetary relief to which they may be entitled.”
Meanwhile, the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office continues to investigate the cause and origin of the fire, which could take several weeks as fire crews continue to put out hot spots and search through the rubble. Investigators are asking former or recent employees of the facility to contact them with more information.