Sides In Health Club Fire Suit Trade Accusations Of Negligence

Four Seasons Case Hinges On Failure Of The Underground Sprinkler

September 29, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — At least this much is known about the circumstances leading up to the 1989 Four Seasons Health Club fire: The location of the undergroundpower line serving the Hampstead facility's fire sprinkler system was apparently a mystery to just about everyone.

That power line -- reported to have been cut either by Prestige Cable TV Inc. of Maryland or A & M Underground Sprinklers of Westminster -- is believed to beone of the reasons a sprinkler system installed by Fire Protection Industries of Frederick did not work on the July night the Hampstead health center burned to the ground, court testimony showed.

In the first week of testimony in a $1.5 million negligence suit brought against the cable company, its Minnesota-based subcontractor North Central Services, the fire sprinkler installer and the underground-sprinkler firm, no one questioned acknowledged knowing where the line was located.

The suit was filed in January 1990 by the ownersof Four Seasons and their insurance company, Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. The fitness center was rebuilt within a year at a cost of more than $1.5 million.

The State Fire Marshal's Office declared the fire an arson, but no arrests have been made.

Gregg Newman, son of center owner Melvyn L. Newman, testified Friday that he did not know where the underground power cable was; neither did the cable company, the fire sprinkler installer or the underground sprinkler installer.

The location of the line is one of the central disputes in what isexpected to be a three-week trial before Carroll County Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. That line, Four Seasons and Fireman's say, was severed, causing the failure of the sprinkler system.

The health club says the failure of the sprinkler system was caused by negligence and the fire was accidental. The defendants, however, tried all week to show that negligence on the part of the health club and arson were the cause.

Melvyn Newman, who took the stand Wednesday, told the jury of 11 women and two men that when he saw the charred remains of his health club on the morning of July 15, he had "trouble with knees buckling when I looked at the scene."

Then, in response to a question from his attorney, John F. Brown Jr. of Philadelphia, about the arson finding, Newman blasted the fire marshal.

"How the fire marshals can make accusations like . . . is unethical, unprofessional," hesaid. "I used a lot of descriptive words I can't use now."

As part of their arson investigation, the fire marshal administered

lie-detector tests to the Newmans and center director and part-owner Kevin Bidelspach. Testimony showed the Newmans passed on their initial try; Bidelspach's first test was inconclusive but he passed his second one.

The defense attorneys -- Baltimore-based William F. Gately for Fire Protection Industries, Jonathan E. Claiborne of Towson for Prestige and North Central, and Ellicott City-based Mike Budow for A & MUnderground -- kept the arson issue near the forefront, maintaining that the sprinkler system was sabotaged intentionally before the fire.

They pointed to the lack of a maintenance contract on the sprinkler and to the lack of maintenance by the club's owners.

The trialwill continue tomorrow morning, when the plaintiffs will continue presenting evidence.

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