The sister of a 26-year-old woman killed in a March house fire claims the husband and his parents likely caused the deadly blaze by violating West Richland city codes and negligently storing flammable materials in an attached shop.
Sharon Piel, personal representative for the estate of Sandy Lynn St. George, has filed a personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit in Benton County Superior Court.
The defendants are the widower, Thomas St. George, his parents Rosemary and Peter St. George and St. George Enterprises LLC.
The lawsuit cites the family businesses as: Moments in Life Photography, St. George and Family Trucking, St. George General Contractor, St. George Truck Driving School and St. George Well Drilling.
Sandy St. George, a mother of three young boys, was found dead after flames destroyed the family's 701 S. 45th Ave. home and the husband's shop.
Thomas St. George was able to escape, telling investigators he was awakened by his barking dog. He was treated for smoke inhalation at the hospital.
Their children had been staying the night at the baby sitter's home. A guardian ad litem is now overseeing their care following the fire.
Piel, in the civil case, says, "The negligence of one or all defendants caused or contributed to the fire on March 18, 2011."
The actual cause of the early-morning blaze is undetermined. Investigators have identified the laundry room as the general area where the fire started, but an exact point of origin is not known, according to West Richland Police Chief Brian McElroy.
Sandy St. George died from carbon monoxide intoxication as a result of smoke inhalation, but the actual manner of death can't be determined because the fire's cause hasn't been established.
The court has set a trial date for Sept. 10, 2012.
Thomas St. George and his company are represented by Steve Osborne of Kennewick.
Osborne told the Herald he is new to the case, has little information beyond what is alleged in the lawsuit and hasn't yet had the chance to meet with his client and go over his response.
"There is very little that I can tell you at this point that would be anything more than rank speculation," he said.
As of Wednesday, a notice of appearance had not been submitted by a lawyer on behalf of Rosemary and Peter St. George.
The lawsuit was filed for Piel by William Reinig Jr. and Levi Barber of Kennewick. They declined to comment further, saying everything is in the complaint.
By law, Piel can't specify a damage amount. The lawsuit only asks for judgments against the defendants "in such amounts as shall be proven at time of trial," along with attorney fees and costs and further relief as deemed equitable by the court.
The complaint states that Thomas St. George ran St. George Enterprises and the other family businesses from their 45th Avenue house and adjacent shop. Peter St. George reportedly owns the .44-acre property on which the buildings sat, according to the lawsuit and the Benton County assessor's website.
"The shop and the area around the shop were cluttered with many materials, many of which were flammable and created a fire hazard," the complaint states.
The city had sent notices to Thomas St. George for about two years prior to the fire, stating that he was not in compliance and was violating various West Richland Municipal Code sections. The lawsuit cites eight sections, which range from nuisance and vegetation to the storage of junk and fencing to requirements for small- and large-scale home occupations.
A letter was sent to the city in September 2009 with a statement that Rosemary and Peter St. George gave permission to their son and his attorney to represent them regarding their property, the claim states. However, a $500 fine reportedly was issued in January 2010 because Thomas St. George failed to comply with the city code.
Piel, in the lawsuit, alleges that city officials earlier sent a notice to the family that a building permit had not been secured for the garage/shop being constructed at the time.
Thomas St. George also was sent a copy of the municipal code dealing with "any accessory used in the home occupation," saying it needed to meet the fire and building code requirements applicable to its use.
"No equipment shall be installed, no product shall be stored and no activities shall be conducted in the dwelling or attached garage that would violate the fire or building code, limitations for a nonrated wooden structure regardless of the construction type of the dwelling," it said.
Piel claims that "various unknown individuals either installed equipment or appliances, or performed electrical work for the St. Georges in the home and/or shop."
Bob Leedy, West Richland's community development director, told the Herald that the earliest correction notice for the property was July 2009. The notice was for violations of storing junk -- accumulated equipment and materials -- and abandoned or inoperable vehicles, "and that really started the city's process with regards to the St. George property."
Leedy said those issues were not corrected, and it continues to be an ongoing violation, with a hearing date scheduled in the near future to get a court order.
It has dragged out "for an awfully long time, due at least in part to the fire and the investigation," he said. "The city just set our code enforcement issues aside while the investigation was going on. We didn't press the issue."
In the past couple of years, there have been hearings before the city's Real Estate Conservation and Management Board, all related to the original correction notice, Leedy said. The St. Georges have not ignored the legal issue, he said, "but they haven't been totally cooperative, for sure."
The fire has been investigated by West Richland police, local fire officials and agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Some evidence items remain to be tested at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, and those results could provide additional information to help determine the fire's cause. Police Chief McElroy said he doesn't have a timeline on when that will be completed.
McElroy said they will continue to look into any further leads but the case now is considered inactive.
"Any information that we get we will follow up on, but at this particular time what we're waiting on are the results from the lab so we can assess what other things we could look into," he said.
And though the lawsuit is a civil process, not criminal, McElroy said investigators will keep an eye and ear on the proceedings to see if something new comes out for them to pursue.