A man who lost his wife and two kids in an apartment fire near San Jose State last November is suing the owner of the building that went up in flames, blaming them for his unit not having smoke alarms.
Khoa Dang Le filed a wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit in Santa Clara County Superior Court last month, seeking damages for the blaze at a duplex on South Ninth Street that killed his two children, Yvonne Mai Le, 14, a student at Gunderson High School, and Thuong Xuan Le, 21, an SJSU student, along with his wife, 48-year-old Lingh My Thi Nguyen.
Le's lawyer says the lawsuit is also aimed at drawing attention to safety concerns associated with low-income housing.
"This is a community case for us," Ryan Harris said in an interview.
"We have low-rent apartments that, for whatever reason, codes that govern conditions of properties are either not paid attention to or purposefully avoided," Harris said.
The family was sleeping at 5 a.m. on Nov. 18 when the fire started. The older Le woke up to thick black smoke consuming the apartment. He woke up his family and tried to escape from the front door of the apartment, the suit states.
But his wife and two children fell unconscious, due to smoke inhalation. before they could escape.
Dang Le "was narrowly rescued" from a bedroom window. He suffered burns to over 70 percent of his body and was placed into a medically induced coma.
In early December he was still in that coma when his family was laid to rest.
The couple and their son had emigrated to the United States from Vietnam. The fire came several months after a fire at the Golden Wheel Mobile Home Park, a largely Vietnamese-American community, that killed three people.
In November, Councilman Tam Nguyen said the city's Vietnamese-American community was in shock from both fires. He said the fire prompted him to call for improvements in making the city's low-income and older housing stock more fire-safe.
San Jose fire investigators deemed the blaze an accident and say it started in the unit's kitchen. But they were unable to determine whether the blaze was ignited from cooking or an electrical problem because the area was so heavily burned, according to Fire Department Capt. Dan Vega.
Days after the blaze, fire officials revealed that arson investigators did not find smoke alarms in the apartment. They found a pair of melted mounted rings for smoke detectors, but no alarms, according to Vega.
The lawsuit blames the building owners, who include Afroditi Andrews and a trust that shares her name, for the lack of alarms and, as a result, the deaths of three people.
"The fire spread rapidly throughout the structure without any adequate safety devices to alert or warn plaintiffs of the spreading fire," the suit states.
State law requires smoke alarms -- or in some cases smoke detectors connected to a fire alarm system -- in all residential units.
Fire officials have emphasized for years that not having the devices can be deadly.
In 2015 a fire killed two members of a family in San Francisco's Mission district. A fire department investigation found that their three-bedroom apartment lacked smoke detectors.
Andrews, reached by phone, declined to discuss the case. Her lawyer, Chris Beeman, has yet to return a request for comment.
Andrews' niece, Georgia Tsaboukos, who has acted as a representative for Andrews, said previously that the apartment was safe and had been inspected frequently by city officials.
In late November Tsaboukos said all four units in the building had smoke alarms.
"Everything was up to code," Tsaboukos said.
The legal complaint disputes that.
"Defendants consciously chose not to take such steps, which allowed defendants to save money and increase profits," the suit states.
Dang Le's lawyers say the building owners not only neglected to install smoke alarms but also that they "had actual knowledge and were aware that the subject property was uninhabitable, was extremely dangerous, and presented grave risk of injury or death."
Fire officials have said their last check of the property, in June 2017, gave it a clean bill of health.
But a department spokesman acknowledged after the fire that it was unclear if the fire crew that inspected the building actually entered the unit where the blaze took place.
It's common for San Jose firefighters to check common areas of apartment buildings for fire safety violations but they don't always get inside individual units, Vega said.
"We're going to gather more information as to whether or not a real inspection was performed," Harris said.
The first court hearing on the suit is set for May 15.