Insurance company sues tenant, alleges negligence caused Waupelani Heights fire

mcarroll@centredaily.com March 25, 2014 

An insurance company wants more than $1.2 million from the tenant whose grill authorities said sparked a massive fire at the Waupelani Heights apartment complex in July.

State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. Middle District Court arguing the tenant’s negligence was to blame for the blaze and that the man should be responsible for damages and other costs.

The tenant’s name appears spelled two different ways in the suit, both as Guen Seop Lee, and Guen Scop Lee. He now lives on Blue Course Drive, according to the court papers. A phone number could not be found for the man, and an attorney was not listed on court documents.

A spokesperson for S&A Homes, which owns the building, could not be reached for comment.

Flames ripped through the building on July 4, leaving 40 people homeless and further depleting the affordable housing stock in the Centre Region, which was still stinging from the loss of dwellings in two shuttered mobile home parks.

Investigators at the time ruled the fire accidental and said it started when a charcoal grill was left unattended and too close to a wall on an apartment balcony .

The suit alleges Lee, who lived in Unit 306, was careless in his use of the grill, and that his actions placed others in the building at risk.

State Farm is demanding a jury trial in the case, according to the court papers.

Steve Bair, Centre Region fire director, previously said the fire likely burned for several minutes before it was discovered by neighbors. Flames had spread from the grill up into the building’s attic and then across the structure, a final report showed.

Bair said Monday that grilling on a balcony was not allowed in Centre Region fire codes nor in the apartment building’s lease.

Lee, like the majority the building’s residents, didn’t have insurance, according to Bair. Many of the residents of the 19-unit building were Penn State graduate students. Some had young children.

S&A Homes is rebuilding the complex and expects work to be done by July 31.

While former tenants will be given the first opportunity to renew their leases, they will have to re-qualify for the apartments, which are part of a low-income housing tax credit program. Residents need to earn less than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

“This is a unique situation, and we appreciate the cooperation of the borough, Centre Region code and most importantly, the numerous fire companies that stopped the fire in July and assured that no one was injured,” said S&A Executive Vice President Andrew Haines in a statement announcing the rebuilding effort last week. “Also, the community stepped up and provided temporary housing, shelter and other materials for tenants to continue their lives in this horrible tragedy.”

Local officials have said new affordable housing units coming online is good news for the community, as there remains a dearth on the market now.

“There is a great need for them,” Herman Slaybaugh, State College’s interim planning director, previously said. “It’s important to get them rebuilt and get people into them.”

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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