Old Montreal building owner, family of victim sue City of Montreal following deadly fire

Seven people were killed in a fire that broke out in a three-storey building in Old Montreal on March 16. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Seven people were killed in a fire that broke out in a three-storey building in Old Montreal on March 16. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The City of Montreal is facing two lawsuits in the aftermath of the Old Montreal fire that killed seven people in March, from family members of the deceased and the building's owner.

The owner of the building, Émile-Haim Benamor, has filed a $7.5 million lawsuit. He is accusing the city of having contributed to the outbreak and severity of the fire through its requirements to preserve heritage buildings.

According to the lawsuit, strict restrictions imposed on the building's original heritage construction make certain modifications or alterations impossible — none of which, it says, prevented the city from granting permits and authorization for rental uses.

The lawsuit specifically mentions the building's thick wooden front door, which it says is over 100 years old. It says the door is of "inestimable heritage value, and cannot be modified or replaced in any way," and as a result, "does not meet contemporary fire staff standards."

The city's demand to keep the door permanently unlocked, despite the plaintiff's protests, "allowed or at least greatly facilitated, the outbreak of the criminal fire," the lawsuit says.

Benamor's suit also claims he was forced to dismantle an emergency exit to the roof after being unable to modify a staircase according to the city standards.

The lawsuit also points the finger at how the municipal authorities responded to the fire, claiming the city failed to send enough firefighters when the building was burning.

It says Benamor arrived quickly to warn about the possibility of people stuck inside the building, but his attempts to communicate "vital information" were ignored.

According to the lawsuit, the city has not carried out any fire prevention or safety inspections in relation to the building since February 2019.

Considered a 'fire trap'

A CBC report following the fire found that, prior to going up in flames, the building was considered a "fire trap" by worried renters.

Inspectors had flagged a number of fire safety violations at the building, including a lack of smoke detectors and problems with its fire escape.

In August, Montreal police announced that the fire had become the subject of a criminal investigation after traces of accelerant were found at the scene.

Alexandre Bergevin, Benamor's lawyer, responded to news of a criminal investigation by saying at the time it showed someone with no connection to Benamor had started the fire.

In its pursuit of damages, the lawsuit claims Benamor has suffered from a "witch hunt," with city representatives making false, defamatory and prejudicial statements by publicly blaming him for the fire.

It says Mayor Valérie Plante's comments about short-term rental platforms were irrelevant to the cause of the fire and served to "divert attention from the city's inertia and its various deficient departments."

Victim's family suing for negligence

The family of one of the victims is also pursuing damages in court.

On Friday, the family of Charlie Lacroix, who died in the fire, filed in Superior Court seeking $1.5 million for negligence from Benamor, Tariq Hasan — who was subletting the units online — and the City of Montreal.

The lawsuit accuses the city of not having acted diligently to condemn the building after numerous irregularities had been noted, or to remove it from short-term rental platforms, even though this type of rental was prohibited by city regulations.

None of these claims have been tested in court.

It comes after a $22-million class action lawsuit was filed in March by Randy Sears — whose 35-year-old son Nathan also died in the fire — against Benamor, Hasan and Airbnb.

The City of Montreal has declined to comment on the case.

CBC has reached out to the lawyers representing Benamor regarding the lawsuits but has not heard back.

CBC was unable to reach Tariq Hasan.